language & grammarvirtual children by Scott Warnock

If you don’t know what grammar is, then texting may be bad for it

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You don’t need research (although it’s easy to find) to tell you that children are sending thousands of texts per month, sometimes hundreds per day. And you don’t need to be a news hound to know that, communications-wise, this has widely been viewed as a sign that all that we know of as good is coming to an end.

It’s coming to an end because people looking at text messages like “OMG, GTG” have decided that texting and other digitally-supported writing behaviors are eroding language or butchering grammar. The unstated implications of these beliefs is that eroded language and butchered grammar are thus destroying our ability to think clearly.

Recently a study appeared in the journal new media and society describing how students who text a lot score poorly on a “grammar” quiz. People love to hear this kind of thing, so news-type publications, which perhaps don’t often cover studies published in journals like new media and society, picked up on this one, running stories with whimsical titles like “YSK, teens 2 fluent in TXT” or “Duz Txting Hurt Yr Kidz Gramr? Absolutely, a New Study Says.” Often, such stories were accompanied by ominous pictures of a bunch of kids hunched over hand-held devices.

Yes, these kids fiddle with their hand-held devices (which, by the way, us parents buy for them) way too much. But if you think their grammar is disintegrating because of it, well, you don’t know what grammar is.

Buried at the bottom of Web versions of most of the news coverage of the studies were lonely voices sharing links about problems with the premise of studies like the one in new media and society. Josef Fruehwald, blogger of Val Systems, writes that the key problem with studies like the new media study is that they show only a dim understanding of what language and grammar are. Mark Liberman takes the new media and society study apart even more vigorously in his blog here.

In short, see, not knowing the difference between “accept” and “except,” which is one of the things the texting teens were assessed by on the study’s “grammar” quiz, is not relevant to your ability to function as a language user. It’s not a grammar issue. Fruehwald puts it this way: “Punctuation, comma rules, spelling conventions, etc. are all only arbitrary decisions settled upon a long time ago, and have nothing, nothing to do with human language.”

The study was covered because it supported a consistently conservative, often generationally biased voice, the end point of which is this: Electronic forms of written communication by younger people demonstrate a writing quality that must be reflective of a kind of brain damage.

So we’re back to an old argument, which is new forms of communication signal the end of the world. Remember, even some guy named Plato took a look at writing itself, that goofy scribing technology, and sounded the alarm, worrying that this writing thing was dangerous for no less a reason than it would damage our ability to memorize.

What’s also interesting is that the students in the study were assessed on a grammar quiz without a comparison to the 40-somethings who nowadays are the ones trying to play catch up with writing shortcuts on their phones. In fact, in my course I’m teaching this term, during a conversation about this topic, the students chuckled about how their parents were now the ones with the bad “grammar”: half a decade later, the parents had all caught up with “textspeak,” but it’s all too late, because the kids have more advanced cellphones and other devices with auto-complete as well as unlimited texting plans, which combine to eliminate shortcuts. (Check out the cartoon xkcd for a quick, humorous look at this generational reversal.)

E-communications simply show this (again): Humans find ingenious ways to make language work in new contexts. I wanted to end here with a cutesy texting sign-off, but for those of you looking at texting and seeing the end of the world, my message should be simpler, albeit colloquial: Chill out.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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8 Responses to “If you don’t know what grammar is, then texting may be bad for it”

  1. [Advanced apologies for all the ALL CAPS crap later in the piece. There isn't an italic or bold option in the comments section.]

    Scott,

    First of all, this piece is outstanding and I really hope it draws some discussion down here in Commentville because everyone seems to have an opinion on this these days. As for me, I agree with parts and disagree with others. This isn’t going to be the most well organized response, so bear with me.

    I agree that texting is most certainly NOT ruining the grammar skills of the younger generation for a few reasons. First of all, texting isn’t replacing some other form of writing, it’s filling an empty void. More simply: before texts, people were not taking to the pen to craft a grammatically perfect letter to a friend. If texting didn’t exist, we’d still be making phone calls (which further supports your “accept vs. except” argument, because they sound the same when spoken).

    Also on the subject of texting being irrelevant to declining grammar skills: does anybody actually feel like texting in complete sentences on a tiny little keyboard? Let’s face it — typing on a phone is a pain in the ass, so whatever shortcuts make that process easier (whether it’s ‘textspeak’ or advancements in auto-complete technology), I’m all for it.

    That being said, I am a grammar nut. So similar technological communications like Facebook posts, in cases not signified by “sent via Blackberry” or some other indication that the author did not have access to a full-sized keyboard, DO bug the hell out of me. It doesn’t take any additional keystrokes or save the writer any extra time to type “there” instead of “their,” but in many cases spelling errors like that (although this particular misspelling is obviously a very simple case) can cause the reader to have to reread a sentence in order to properly understand what the author is saying.

    So as for Fruehwald’s description of punctuation and spelling variances being completely arbitrary and, therefore, having nothing to do with human language, I think that’s pretty dead wrong. There are different levels of functioning as a language user, and writing is a big part of it.

    ***

    Pause to acknowledge that Dr. Jennifer Yusin’s Literary Theory class at Drexel was both the coolest and most difficult course I took as an undergrad. Continue pausing so that I may apologize to all readers and to her if I do not explain this next bit perfectly. In terms of my understanding of language, I am a poor serf compared to the noble Ferdinand de Saussure. Proceed…

    ***

    Now, continuing on that thought from two paragraphs ago (like I said at the top, this isn’t very well organized), proper written language is a big part of being a language user. And to say that punctuation and the correct spelling of words don’t factor into linguistic abilities because they’re “only arbitrary decisions settled upon a long time ago” doesn’t make any sense. Why? Because spoken language is no less arbitrary.

    In Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics,” he uses the example of a tree. The CONCEPT of a tree is defined within each individual based on our experiences, and in the case of a tree (being that it’s a relatively simple concept), we all have the same general idea of what a “tree” is. But the SOUND of me saying the word “tree” is completely arbitrary — it’s just the sound that we, as a society, agreed long ago would represent the concept of a tree. If I say the word “chair,” everyone would think of a completely different concept, because, once again, we agreed that that sound would signify a different concept. So in short, there is no direct correlation between the sounds that comprise our speech and the concepts that each word represents except for the fact that we, as a society, have agreed that the sound “tree” will mean tree.

    Furthermore, Saussure explains, these social contracts between sounds and concepts, once established, cannot be changed by the individual. More simply: I can’t say “chair” and make you think of a tree, because we’re both bound by the already established agreement that “tree” is the correct sound.

    So, to close out the academic Saussure references (I can’t believe how long I just spent rereading this stuff, Jesus Christ!)…

    The Fruehwald quote is seemingly basing the idea of being a functioning language user on speech, since he’s implying that not knowing the difference between “accept” and “except” is irrelevant since they sound the same and the difference in spelling is completely arbitrary. But it seems odd to devalue something based on arbitrariness when speech is, on a timeline extending past Plato, equally arbitrary, according to Saussure. (“My guy can beat up your guy.”)

    Last bit, I promise. This is fictional, but roll with it:

    A security guard sits at a desk, admitting people to a party. He knows everyone that’s come in so far, but someone shows up who he doesn’t know and is dressed very scraggly and has no shoes on. He sends a text to his boss, who is up in the VIP lounge.

    GUARD: (Photo of the man attached) Do you want me to admit this man?

    BOSS: Everyone is allowed in — except him.

    But if the boss meant to say “Everyone is allowed in — accept him,” then suddenly he’s not a very functional language user.

    Maybe you’re point is that there would be an easier way to say the same thing, like, “Yes even that guy can come in.” But that’s what I meant earlier about there being different levels of functionality with language.

    Alright this thing ended up way longer than intended for a Saturday.

    Gtg. L8r.

    -Ian

    [I say all of this knowing that as an English professor, you most certainly are not advocating that it doesn't matter at all when people use there, their, and they're interchangeably or do the same with other similar sounding words. Also, I acknowledge that you're significantly smarter than me. And finally, if asked to defend my Saussure argument, I reserve the right to invoke Yusin as counsel, haha. But really, great piece Scott. This topic will draw a response from me 100% of the time.]

  2. This is another terrific post, Scott. I am currently teaching Dickens’ *Hard Times,* the 1854 novel that critiques the Gradgrind school of pedagogy. It makes some of the same general points you do about what is and is not important in education. As Dickens makes clear, if children can freely express themselves and exercise their imaginations, they will learn, no matter what the pedants say.
    You take, as always, the large, generous view. It’s a pleasure to read your thoughts.

  3. Evolution = survival of the fittest.

    If you can’t evolve then improvise or find other ways to adapt. The addition of something new does not have to equal the death of something old if you are passionate about it. It applies to science, language, technology (look at all of the devoted paper-only bibliophilles and is there a word yet for those die-hard collectors of vinyl albums?)

    I’ve argued this before but how many of my generation (40 something) could communicate effectively with our great-grandparents given our language use today?

    And Ian, I don’t know what your vocal accent may be but I can’t quite hear in my head accept and except the same way at all… except in the case of some very lazy, mumbled speech which is quite worse than lazy writing IMHO. ;)

    Thanks Scott!

  4. Writing, like any skill, requires practice. Texting encourages sloppy technique. When deployed in foreign lands as a young soldier, I wrote a letter every day to my wife. I had two sides of a piece of 5″ x 8″ paper (if I was lucky) to capture the events of the day. I practiced writing my letters on scrap cardboard so that I didn’t have to waste valuable space by scribbling out a poorly worded sentence.
    You are correct. This is a big problem. Our schools are letting grammar slide. I am involved in evaluating writing assignments for a local college. I am stunned by the poor effort.
    The Elements of Style is a must own. It should sit on the desktop right next to the keyboard.
    Hope I didn’t make any mistakes above. LOL.

  5. Texting isn’t eroding language or grammar. It, along with Facebook and the plethora of electronics I hand my children, is ruining a generation’s ability to communicate. Twenty years from now — today’s children who have excellent communication skills will rule the world. {steps off soapbox}

  6. Shorter comment this time:

    come mothers n fathers
    thru-out the land
    n dont criticize
    what u cant understand
    ur sons n ur daughters
    r beyond ur command
    ur old road is
    rapidly agin
    plz get outta the new 1
    if u cant lend a hand
    4 the times they r a changin

    -Bob Dylan, kinda

  7. .– . … …. — ..- .-.. -.. — .- -.- . – …. . -.- .. -.. … ..- … . — — .-. … . -.-. — -.. .

    (Texting?! Phooey!! Bring back Morse Code.)

  8. Even if texting were destroying grammar, it would be nothing compared to the impact it is having on person-to-person communication and manners. Sloppy writing bugs me, but maybe that is just my problem. And perhaps any noise we make, which effectively delivers the point to its intended target, is adequate communication. But lack of eye contact, ignoring motorists on university cross-walks, talking over people in line, and interrupting conversations because one’s cell phone takes precedent is unacceptable to me; call me ignorant.

    After all, I do begin sentences with “and” and “but”.

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