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.
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