By Kristina Bostley
Today’s generation of students has never known a world without text messaging. Since the first text was sent in 1992, text messaging – or simply “texting” – has become increasingly commonplace with each passing year. Written language has evolved significantly and thus raises the question of what impact the advent of texting has had on both formal and casual written communication.
Data from a January 2014 Pew Research Center study established that a staggering 90% of American adults own a cell phone, and 58% of those communicate via smartphone. In a 2012 study by Pew Research Center, it was found that 83% of people aged 18 to 29 use smartphones, a significantly higher percentage than any other age group. For cell phone users across all age groups, text messaging is the most popular activity they engage in.
Students view casual written communication in a very different way than they perceive formal writing. In fact, a lot of students don’t see digital communication (such as texting and e-mailing) as actual writing. For them, it is simply another way to speak to people that is distinctly separate from formal writing.
The debate rages on whether texting affects literacy, and if so, to what extent. Text messaging often gets a bad reputation because of the type of language used within them. When text messaging was first introduced, 160-character limits forced users to invent creative ways of getting their point across in a succinct manner. Although it may seem that abbreviations and acronyms slowly crept their way into common vernacular over the last two decades, they were actually utilized long before texting. The first “OMG” was recorded during a conversation between British Navy Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher and Winston Churchill in 1917. In fact, the military used several common abbreviations long before they popped up on a tiny cell phone display. Some of these acronyms and abbreviations have even weaseled their way into the Oxford English Dictionary, much to the dismay of English teachers and those passionate about the language – and supposed degradation thereof.
Though research has been conducted on this topic, no substantial evidence has proven that literacy is affected by texting; however, inside the classroom is a different story. Teacher Barbara Barbarite feels that acronyms and bad grammar habits are carried from texting to schoolwork, saying, “Their writing has turned into a stream of consciousness because that’s how they text. There’s no structure. I find their capitalization is bad and I’d bet it’s because they’re so used to autocorrect capitalizing and correcting for them, so it’s become a huge problem.” Pew Internet & American Life Project determined that 64% of students admitted that the way they text has had an effect on their schoolwork. College student Jillian Tallent agrees: “I’ve noticed that sometimes I write a paper the way I’d text someone, but I realize it before I turn in the assignment.”
Despite this, texting at an early age can actually aid literacy, challenging the notion that texting is detrimental to students’ understanding of the English language. If the idea of literacy is recognized as the capability to understand and reproduce language in a way that is comprehended by both the sender and the receiver, then the transmission of information is the key takeaway regardless of Standard English spelling and grammar. If this notion is understood, then it is plausible that the English language has not decayed as a result of texting, but rather has spawned a sort of sub-language of “text talk” for casual written communication.
It can also be recognized that much of text talk is phonetic, so students still comprehend the words themselves even if they are not spelled correctly inside text messages. Some teachers believe writing, regardless of the students’ use, can benefit students’ comprehension of language. However, it is expected that students refine their writing to Standard English before turning in schoolwork – which raises a valid point. As long as students can differentiate between formal and casual written conversation, the idea that literacy is deteriorating is a moot point; instead, being able to understand how to use each type of language in its appropriate context is the issue at hand. Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, acknowledges this concept. “The solution…is not to do away with text messaging abbreviations, but for writers to be aware of the purpose of their writing,” she states.
Regardless of whether text talk creeps into formal environments such as school and the workplace, it isn’t going anywhere. Awareness of where and how a person uses acronyms, abbreviations, capitalization, and other text jargon is extremely important, but understanding this whole new vernacular in text-to-text communication is of equal significance. Text talk boasts its own rules for styling the English language.
Because nonverbal expression of emotion (such as tone of voice) is lost via written communication, users rely on the use of punctuation and emojis to convey the tone of the text message. Exclamation points are used much in the same way across all forms of writing – to express surprise or enthusiasm. The same goes for question marks, although they may not be used at the end of a text and the receiver would still be expected to answer. But although periods are used to end a thought in formal communication, they are often used at the end of a text message to express sarcasm, anger, or a generally serious tone. Jillian Tallent points out that “Emojis make the text more positive/negative. Using exclamation points makes the text seem positive, using periods makes it seem more serious, and using nothing is just neutral.”
Technology has undoubtedly reshaped the way society communicates, namely among the younger generation. It remains to be determined just how substantial the impact of text talk will be on formal communication in decades to come. In the meantime, the differentiation between formal writing and text talk in their respective environments must be stressed so as to maintain comprehension of each language.