by Christopher Butler on in articles, culture, social media

In a GOOD blog post (that happens to feature some really clever photographs, too) titled “Text-pocalypse Now?,” Mark Peters interviews linguist and author David Crystal about whether textese/textish/txt is ruining the English language. Here’s a portion of one of Crystal’s responses:

“People believe that a text message is “full” of abbreviations, as in the classic c u l8r. In fact, when you collect a corpus of messages and analyze them, the average number of words per message that are abbreviated is around 10 per cent. That means that most words are in standard spelling. This is especially true of messages between adults, now constituting about 80 per cent of all text messages. Organizations such as the stock exchange, colleges, broadcasting stations and political parties (not least, Barack Obama) now routinely text as a means of informing people about things. Some actually ban abbreviations, because of their possible unfamiliarity or ambiguity. Anyone who believes that texting is just for kids is totally out of date.

Hardly any of these abbreviations are new. Several are hundreds of years old. Those adults who object to initialisms such as bbl (’be back later’) forget that, once upon a time, they did the same sort of thing themselves – only without a cell phone. Remember SWALK on the back of an envelope? Or the rebus puzzles in magazines and Christmas annuals such as Y Y U R, Y Y U B…?

There was a hoax school essay produced in 2003 which was entirely written in texting abbreviations. Unfortunately, millions were taken in by it. Such things simply don’t happen. I work a lot with schools, and I often ask teachers to show me examples of textisms in schoolwork. They never can. I think I’ve been shown one example over the past two years, and that was a single instance of rushed writing. I ask the kids themselves would they ever use textisms in their writing. They look at me as if I’m nuts. “Why would you ever want to do that?” said one to me. “That would be stupid.” Quite so. You’d have to be pretty dumb to not see the difference between texting style and essay style. Or, putting this another way, teachers who let kids think the difference doesn’t matter wouldn’t be doing their job. And the same point applies to examinations. I’ve asked many examiners whether they have seen textisms in exam answers. The answer is always no. But ask joe public if kids use textisms in schoolwork and exams, and there is an almost universal yes. It’s extraordinary how these myths take hold of the public imagination.

A further myth is that texting is harming children’s literacy. Well of course, once you see the reality, this myth disappears. What is interesting is the recent research which is showing that the more kids text, the better their literacy scores. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Reading and writing improve with practice. Texting provides that practice.”

I’m not sure what to make of this, actually. I think I would have pessimistically assumed that the more one used textese, the more it would creep into non-phone writing, too. But I have observed that this is not the case with me. I completely reject the following textese: LOL, lolcat, and pwned. Yet, I have been known to use “u” instead of “you,” or “gr8″ instead of “great,” especially when texting using my phone (it IS faster, see). I also must admit to not only using, but actually enjoying, the emoticon. Pretty frequently. :-| (That’s my robotic, this-is-no-joke face.) But has this caused me to end professional emails with “pls call me” or “thx?” No. I think people are smart enough to know how to adapt their speaking or writing to different contexts. Your thoughts?

  • http://www.myrevsource.com/seo.html search engine marketing va

    Hey Chris..what a wonderful article.. I didn’t know that there were other people who notice the changing trends of the time. Years ago Bob Dylan said “ times they are a changing”, and keeping in mind the volatile 60’s & 70’s it was a good change… but this change I really don’t approve of it..yes technology has taken over our lives and is important but does it mean that we have to adapt ourselves to shortcuts..text messaging id definitely ruining our English. A generation like ours won’t be affected much but what about the new borns..if short forms are all they know then not just written but spoken English too will get affected.. we have to remember its a vicious circle.. one thing leads to another.

  • http://Website Kathy Pollock

    Hate to play devil’s advocate, but I teach in a middle school in WV, and text language does appear in student work. I usually establish a compromise: If students are taking notes or writing something that I won’t read, they may use whatever “shorthand” they prefer. However, if it is to be turned in to me, it must be in formal English. Also, summer before last, I hand scored Middle School Writing Assessments to compare scores obtained by computer with those scored “by hand”. The same rubric was used both times. In scoring the assessments, many of the participants were surprised at the text language that was included in the writing sample. It appears that “writing”, as we once knew it, is losing its place in the business world, the school, the home, etc. Writing or receiving a “real” letter or thank-you note is very rare these days. E-greetings, E-statements, E-everything is becoming the norm. The “E-card”, though cute, is not like holding a gretting card in your hand and reading someone’s sentiments written in his/her handwriting. Handwriting—I could write at length about that also, but my plan period is almost over. Kathy

  • jessica

    sorry ‘kathy’ but just to say,i myself am a teenager and i personally never used abbreviations or non standard english in my work.Your class are obviously of a low standard.

  • Camille

    I think Kathy has a point. I’m a high school student and am scared to miss a single day as I miss notes. Teachers tend to just say “Borrow someones notes” when I miss a lesson but it isn’t that simple. When trying to understand what Shakespeare was talking about during Macbeth I had to spend about an hour just translating the notes and the practice essay I was forced to borrow. The language has become unbearable nowadays and I’m beginning to miss the simple act of a laughing without the words “LOL” leaving someones mouth.

  • Angela

    I totally disagree with Kathy, as i have the knowledge and understanding to distinguish uses of texting and formal english. I have never used non standard english in my work and also my teachers have never encountered uses of textism when marking essays. So either you are exaggerating reality for attention or just have a class with poor levels of articulation. On the other chris, i believe you make a fair point of how myths are taken by the public but clearly there are people around the world ‘kathy’ who use minor cases to create attention, nevertheless i agree with your conclusion and believe that texting can be used as means of improving english language

  • Harold

    The main way I see the effect of texting isn’t with abbreviations, but with a disregard for standard rules of punctuation and capitalization. Interestingly, teachers I know in non-English speaking countries have noticed the same thing.

  • Emma

    language is always changing and evolving overall, should we really be worried about this? I’m 15 and am doing an essay on this topic and I personally don’t think that it is a problem. We adapt our speech to fix an all manor of situations, isn’t this just another example of doing this? I think so in fact when you take into consideration the many variations in our ever changing language, and how people adapt it on a daily basis I don’t think that it is a theat. yes it is changing the way we speak but change it good and their will always be a place for standard English in society


By Christopher Butler

Chris Butler is the COO of Newfangled. He writes and speaks often on design and the web. You can follow him @chrbutler. More by Christopher Butler