2 b or not 2 b…

I watched a video this weekend. It was not a comedy or action film, and there was certainly no romance. At the risk of sounding intensely geeky, I will admit that I watched a 30-minute video of linguist David Crystal discussing text abbreviations. I’ve had the link bookmarked in my “Things to read” folder for several months now. I don’t even remember what initially brought my attention to it, but it’s been staring at me daily for far too long, and whatever it was that made me reluctant to watch it was finally put aside as I sat down with pen and paper, ready to watch and take notes.

As much as I tried to go into this with an open mind, my skepticism was already in place before I even started watching. The subtitle of the video is “Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s leading linguistic experts, challenges the myth that new communication technologies are destroying language.” Right away, the bias is revealed. Using the word “myth” immediately implies that any thought that the ideas to be discussed are pure fiction; that there is no truth to these claims of linguistic torture. I feel that it’s a bit premature and arrogant to be so unconcerned at this point, especially since that peace of mind runs counter to the frustrating experiences that my colleagues and I have with students taking our composition courses.

Still, I watched, maintaining as much objectivity as possible, and tried to think rationally about the points Crystal made in his brief talk. He explores four “myths” about texting abbreviations that have taken hold in society since texting became so ubiquitous. In order, he discusses the following concerns:

  1. Text messages are full of abbreviations and are not understandable if you don’t understand the abbreviations.
  2. These abbreviations are “new-fangled” and were created purposely by teenagers either to communicate in a system that adults could not understand or…
  3. …because they can’t spell.
  4. Kids no longer know the difference between appropriate or inappropriate use of abbreviations and are now using them all the time in their school work.

He says that the conclusion being drawn by many people is that, because of these things, kids no longer have responsibility for the language, they are losing the ability to spell, and the English language is going down the tubes.

At this point, he transitioned to a discussion of what the “truth” is about each of the previous myths. Here’s what he says the facts are:

  1. Text messages are comprised of only 10% abbreviations on average (figures range from 5-18%). 80% of messages are sent by adults.
  2. Abbreviations are not “new-fangled” but have been in use in rebus puzzles and the like since the Victorian age.
  3. Kids can spell, but they use abbreviations because it’s cool. Furthermore, texting is proving beneficial for language skills. “The better someone can text, the better that person’s literacy scores are.”
  4. Students are not using abbreviations in schoolwork. Teachers report no problems or can think of only one or two exceptions. Students themselves deny using them.

I understand that there’s only so much Crystal could explain in 20 minutes, and that it wasn’t really the forum to discuss details of the research on which he is basing his conclusions. I still, however, ended up agreeing with some of his “corrections” but having doubts about some of the others.

Here’s where I stand on the ideas Crystal brought up:

Myth 1.  I never really thought that over-use of abbreviations in texting was a problem because text messages are an appropriate context for those abbreviations. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’ve always been more of a descriptivist and generally don’t think that language change is synonymous with language destruction. However, I did have a small objection about Crystal’s use of these statistics. He seemed to focus on myths involving children and teenagers, but then shows how the majority of text messages – 80% – are sent by adults. But including that 80% skews the results if the concern is how often abbreviations are used by teenagers. The real story would lie in the data of texts that teenagers send and what percentage of those messages are comprised of abbreviations. Only then could we get a sense of what is happening to the language skills of younger people, not all people.

Myth 2. It’s true that word play and abbreviations have been used for hundreds of years, and even the forms of these abbreviations we use now aren’t their first time in use.  I’m sure this generation is not the first to realize that the letter ‘u’ sounds the same as our 2nd person pronoun, or that vowels can be removed from words without affecting their comprehension. My issue with this, however, is that these playful abbreviations were just that: playful, used in puzzles or parlor games. There was a clear context which was outside the realm of every day communication. Sure, it was fun to work out what a rebus was, but would anyone dream of using these puzzles in letters they write to friends, family, or work colleagues when real communication was required? Would a gentleman leave a calling card that said “tlk l8r pls” and really expect his lady friend to be impressed?

Myth 3. The link between texting and literacy skills is really the most contentious of all of these claims. The real concern is that overuse of texting abbreviations will cause a decline in reading comprehension and writing skills. Crystal made the statement that,“The better they text, the better their literacy scores”, referring to research he claims to show that good texters perform better on literacy exams. This implies a causality: better texting leads to better literacy skills. I don’t understand how he can be so confident in the direction of these events when there is still not enough evidence either way to assume that relationship. Perhaps it’s the opposite: their texting skills are high because they are better readers and writers to begin with. In a very quick scan of internet resources on this subject, I found several articles of the issue (here’s one), a dubious study (tiny sample size, imprecise methods) showing a positive link, a more credible study (harder evidence, more reliable technique) that shows a positive link, and some concerns of cognitive scientists of a negative link.

Basically, the jury is out and it seems that Crystal is very quick to assume the positive causality based on rudimentary data, while other equally accomplished cognitive scientists are reaching opposite conclusions, also on rudimentary data.

Myth 4. Crystal says that he bases his conclusion that kids really aren’t using abbreviations in school work on visiting schools and talking to some teachers and students. Again, given limitations of time and venue, he didn’t elaborate on how many visits, how long the conversations were, or how many teachers or students he talked to, though he did at least mention that the students he talked to were “6th-formers” (about equivalent to U.S. 10th graders). I can’t help but get the feeling that he is indulging in a little armchair quarterbacking. It seems to me that of course teachers would say that their students do not use texting abbreviations inappropriately; they want their students to look good. And students would also say no; they too want to look good, but more importantly, they may not even be aware of the behavior. It’s become so automatic that they may not even notice that they’ve just typed a “u” into a paper. Additionally, he seems awfully ready to apply anecdotal evidence to all contexts. Were the school visits all in the UK? Were they all similar in terms of quality, demographics, and standards? How sure is he that he would get the same answers from teachers and students at a high-risk area of the Bronx, or in rural North Carolina?

I may be out of line for being so critical of a linguist with so much more experience and expertise than I have, but I also believe that at times, the foot soldier out in the fields can sometimes have a better view of the reality of the battle than does the general calling the shots from his tent. I know what my colleagues and I see from our students, and it’s more than the occasional student who once slips in a texting abbreviation into their homework. I see it more frequently than I did a year ago, and I am even seeing it in handwritten work where the excuse of space or technological limitations are absent. It’s gotten bad enough that I have decided to make it a firm class policy that any paper containing a texting abbreviation will be returned ungraded until the stylistic errors are corrected. Student emails to me contain these abbreviations nine times out of ten, and I’m starting to think that college students are allergic to the idea of capital letters. They even forget to capitalize their own names.

I’m not ready to say that language skills are in sharp decline because of modern communications technology. I know that I feel concern, but it may simply be just the discomfort that comes with any transition, good or bad. Or maybe there is something to worry about that is more encompassing than just language skills: we may be harming our ability to concentrate, pay attention, or process complex information in our need to do everything so quickly, to have instant access at all times.

Ultimately, I know that the only thing I can control is my own behavior, and I will continue in my general refusal to use texting abbreviations. That’s my choice and I don’t expect it to be anyone else’s, but if these linguistic shortcuts turn out to be the demise of our beloved English language as we know it today, then I’m going to go down fighting!

13 thoughts on “2 b or not 2 b…

  1. Ugh! Although I “liked” the post, I actually “hate” this problem we’re seeing. I’m with you, sister. My students use text lingo all. the. time. Seriously. I even got so fed up with it one day that I went into class and before taking roll said to them, “Listen, guys. I want you to take a moment to consider the importance of audience analysis. Audience analysis is when we think about who we’re writing to, or speaking to, or even texting to. Wouldn’t you agree that when you text your friends you are using a different form of the written word than, say, when you write an e-mail to your grandmother?” When they nodded a little hesitantly (probably really curious what my point was), I said, “Then allow me to remind you that when you correspond with me…your ENGLISH teacher…you want to keep in mind that your audience, even for a quick ‘I’m too sick to come to class’ e-mail is going to be read by your ENGLISH teacher. You probably don’t want to give me the impression that you don’t know how to write in ENGLISH.” They chuckled at that and I wrote three rules on the board for e-mailing me: 1. It is absolutely appropriate to greet me in your e-mail. Dear Mrs. H may be a bit formal, but Hello Mrs. H is perfectly acceptable. 2. It is absolutely appropriate to S-P-E-L-L out every word in your e-mail. Some contractions will be acceptable, but never substitute a letter or word with a number. 3. It is absolutely appropriate to sign your e-mail. You may sign only your name or even your initials, but let me know who you are when you send that e-mail to me.

    I should have included, “Your correspondence should have a subject line, as well.” I hate getting no subject e-mails. I also hate getting e-mails without a subject that consist of no salutation of any kind, no general pleasantries, and only a thesis statement without a signature. I’ve received those and responded with, “And what do you want me to do with this?” Even though I know it’s obvious.

    Okay, I realize my comment is a bit off-topic here. I do think students’ spelling skills are massively inept. This is in great part because of texting and spell check. They are crippled by their tools. At least, in this young teacher’s humble opinion (sample size: 120 students an academic year for 6 years, on average). I also think that to an even greater degree we’re seeing that their communication skills are utterly absent. (And I’m one of those elitists who firmly believes that good spelling and good communication go hand-in-hand.) It makes me wonder what the cover letters looked like from new college graduates from the years, oh, 2005-2010. Maybe the economy’s not the only reason people aren’t finding employment? (Or maybe I’m just incredibly jaded and cynical at this point….)

    • It all comes down to a lack of effort, really. They just don’t pay attention to these things anymore, and I find it inconceivable that adults have to be reminded to put their names on emails and capitalize letters. I give the same speech about having to remember context, and that they should not be addressing their English teacher the same way as they do their peers.

      I remember a few semesters ago, one student was getting frustrated with something we were learning one day. Fragments, avoiding cliches? Can’t remember, but this student suddenly burst out, “But we don’t talk that way!” I practically jumped up and down at being handed the teaching moment. “EXACTLY!” I yelled. “We don’t talk this way, but we aren’t talking, are we? We’re writing and therefore, it has to be done differently.” I explain how facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, and the relationship with the listener all work together to help create meaning, but we don’t have these tools when we write. Only the relationship, if it’s a letter or email or text, but a totally different one exists with the unknown reader.

      Some of them will get it, some of them could but are already tuned out, and some will never ever get it. If I manage to get through to just a few of them who are capable of understanding, then I’m okay :)

  2. Hurray for the soldiers who go down fighting!!
    For a long time I insisted on writing complete sentences (with capital letters, full stops, and NO abbreviations) in my text messages, until I figured out I was being ridiculous and wasting valuable time and space. I admit I do now occasionally substitute a number for a letter – however, I confine my abbreviations to text messaging, and do not allow them to leak out onto the page, or even the email box. I will say that once one gets used to using abbreviations, it takes a conscious effort on the part of the writer to revert to a non-abbreviated language, and I think that’s the problem with out students: they get lazy. Why write a long word when a single number suffices?! Their assumptions with regard to the level of tolerance of their teachers are sometimes truly astounding…
    My own battle with them is more basic: it’s the Kindly-put-a-capital-letter-at-the-beginning-of-your-sentence-and-a-full-stop-at-the-end-of-it-thank-you-very-much battle. It always amazes me that university students should need to be reminded of this simple rule of courtesy. When returning their first paper of the term, I am now systematically obliged to give them my capital letter/full stop speech, and to tell them that from then on, I will be docking points for non-observance of this rule – after all, it’s the very first thing they learnt in primary school (at this, they have the grace to look a bit sheepish).
    Anecdotes aside, I think it is essential to be vigilant and rigorous. I am not so open to debate about statistics and studies as you: I KNOW grammar is going down the toilet! And as far as I am able, I will strive to shore up the dyke and prevent a complete landslide…

    • I am sure I would use more abbreviations in texting, if I actually used text messaging with any sort of regularity, which I don’t. When I lived overseas and texting was free, I did it a lot more and I know how distracting it can be. I guess I’m reluctant to be drawn back into all of that again, so I try to avoid texting when I can.

      It’s true, though, that it is just a learned behavior that becomes automatic. They don’t even know they’re doing it. I ask my students after the first essay if any of them remember putting texting abbreviations in their papers. Everyone says “Absolutely not!” At that point, I hold up the 4-5 papers that I graded that contained those abbreviations. Most of the time, the culprits are stunned.

      When I was tying the title of this post, I had to deliberately stop myself to make sure I was using the abbreviations. I kept writing “2 b or not to be” without even realizing it. For me, using the full words is habit and I do it without thinking. For them, it’s become the opposite. Encouragingly enough, however, I have had a handful of students who realized what was happening to their writing, and they deliberately stopped using abbreviations, even in texting. One student even got rid of his texting plan for his phone so he wouldn’t do it nearly as much anymore and get out of the habit of writing in “textspeak.”

  3. I work in the academic sector in a Spanish speaking country, and the increasing inability of our students to write properly is worrying. Texting is a regular activity -our teenagers are texting an amazing ammount of time a day- and I think it does affect their ability to spell, and write complete well structured sentences; they get used to all the shortening and distorting they do to be brief, they feel it is fine, and as they have never been very fond of grammar… I think they are paying less attention than ever. Of course, texting is not the one and only devil, we have serious problems for example at getting them into reading, reading books, full ones, long ones, well written ones. That helps, appart from correcting them over and over again, as we are also doing. I like the idea of returning the papers without marking, it would be interesting to try. I think it is important to know that shortening can be useful for texting, but is not the way to write for other purposes. Additionally, while texting some are even starting to use words in English, as they are often shorter than the Spanish ones. Quite a mixture of a sentence they got.

    • It’s really fascinating to me how English is being incorporated in ways we don’t expect. When I was overseas, I was really surprised at how much English is used in ads, for example, or even on business signs not even in touristic areas. Some of my Turkish students one day were teasing each other, and one called the other “Spastic!” (of course pronounced slightly differently). I suddenly looked over and said “That wasn’t nice!” They were shocked. “How? You said you don’t speak Turkish!” I told them it was because they were actually speaking English ;) (plus, I didn’t want to let on how much Turkish I did know – never give away the advantage to a crowd of unruly teenagers!)

      The issues we are seeing are certainly not limited to English, nor, as I said in the post, are they limited to language skills. I really feel that people today are suffering from a sort of voluntary, media- and technology-fueled ADD.

  4. Well said! Even though I am a somewhat frequent text-er, I refuse to use texting lingo as well! In fact, my messages normally exceed the standard character limit due to my inability to condense or abbreviate my words, and my attention to proper grammar. I elaborate too much, but at least I sound fairly intelligent while doing so.
    By the way, fantastic blog; I learn a lot from your posts!

  5. I am okay with the “texting” language. I have a problem with relying on spellcheck, though. I know my spelling has gotten worse because I know I can check it. When I am actually handwriting something I find I am struggling with spelling.
    I feel the same way about calculators. It is sad to see a cashier unable to count back change because the register has always shown the amount of change due.

    • Oh, it’s been years since I’ve seen a cashier even attempt to count back change! When I had a retail job, we would get yelled at by our manager if we didn’t count change back, and hardly anyone relied on the cash register to tell them the change. And we made fun of the ones who did!

      We are dependent on our tools. It’s one of the reasons I choose to limit my use: I don’t ever want to be a slave to my devices. I even turn off the auto-correct settings on my word processing programs. But then again, I’m an obstinate woman who apparently likes making things purposely harder for herself ;)

      I think texting language is fine…for texting. But I tell my students that they aren’t sending me a 1,000 text message so they should remember to “translate” their textspeak!

  6. Pingback: Redux | As a Linguist…

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