3 contrasting views on the effects of text messaging on English grammar

It’s one of those things that happen as a blogger; you remember writing a post about a particular subject and then consign yourself to not revisiting it for a while. Well, somehow it’s been the best part of three years since I last wrote about text messaging, so I think it’s finally time for a spiritual part two to May, 2010’s ‘Why texting is good for the English language.’

In the time that has passed since I last wrote about texting, debate has continued to rage among the academic community about the effects of text messaging on English grammar (and other grammars too, I’d imagine). According to one particularly unscientific poll conducted by Edutopia.org, a convenient 50% of the respondents ranted that texting is harming their learners’ ability to write and their mastery of grammar (from a sample of 1028 educators). 20% were less certain that texting was the devil’s spawn, suggesting that it may have some impact on student writing although not considering it a major problem, while 27% felt texting was not a negative influence. The remaining 3% had clearly spent too much time texting to be able to comprehend what they were being asked.

So, why am I revisiting this topic? I guess I have three reasons:

1. I had a fairly strong opinion about this in May, 2010 (you can hazard a guess from the previous post’s title), and I want to see if this has changed.

2. I’d like to gauge your opinions on this subject.

3. This is a good subject and I should be able to get away with blogging about it once every couple of years!

Before I get on to business, let me give you a little bit of background on the history of text message ‘lingo’.

The Evolution of ‘text speak’

So-called digital natives, those born into Generation Y (some time approximately between 1980 and 2000) have grown up with constantly emerging technology and use it every day, multiple times a day. A big part of this is Gen Yer’s relationship with their mobile phone and its ability to be utilized for sending and receiving short personal messages.

Texting, as with any form of writing, takes time, and on a tiny keyboard like a cellular device, it can take even longer. As time has passed and the texting has become ever more prevalent, texters have saved time by creating a new form of shorthand often called chat-speak. Students now text every day and have gotten so used to this form of writing that they are starting to incorporate it in school related projects and real world situations.

The arguments for, against and… none at all

At this point I’d like you to stop reading and consider your position on texting. Do you think it’s having a bad effect on grammatical knowledge? Do you think it’s having a beneficial effect? Are you somewhere in between?

OK, are you ready? Let’s now consider the three sides of the argument.

1. Text messaging is having a negative effect on English grammar

Adopting a careless approach to grammar and spelling on mobile phones may have a lasting effect on schoolwork: An American study last year indicated that students who had recently sent or received a text message performed significantly worse on a grammar exam than those who had not.

A common belief is that the abbreviations used in text messaging are giving a battering to written English. Increasingly, school teachers in countries where English is the first language report that work is being written using poor punctuation, bad grammar and inappropriate abbreviations. It’s claimed that students sometimes don’t even realize they are using text lingo in their academic work.

Although there are many such reports, it’s not all doom and gloom…

2. Text messaging is having a positive effect on English grammar

Surely anytime you can get students to write something, the outcome is positive? The fact is learners are currently writing more than ever before and this is solely down to texting, instant messaging and the various forms of online communications. Not only are students writing more, they are also revising what they have written more.

The simple assumption is that text messaging is a futile exercise in just writing anything that springs to mind, but this supposition fails to even scratch the surface of what goes into texting. People have to work really hard to fashion their messages into a few precise words. Consequently, there are teachable moments involved with texting; teachers can use it to teach about the evolution of language from Shakespearean English (which was constructed in a remarkably similar way to your average text) to Internet English and, of course, how to get your message across concisely.

Me and David Crystal, or should that be David Crystal and I?

Me and David Crystal, or should that be David Crystal and I?

3. Text messaging is having absolutely no effect on English grammar

A third view about the effects of text messaging on English grammar is that there is no effect whatsoever. Texting may actually be considered another language completely; learning this new language doesn’t affect a person’s ability to use English grammar. Basically, this is the equivalent to the use of slang words on English grammar. Each generation develops its own jargon without English grammar having been changed as a result. Nevertheless, learners need to learn ‘the basics’ in class to know the difference between slang, texting lingo and ‘correct’ English.

What do I think?

Well, my opinion hasn’t changed since my original posting. I was completely won over by the wonderful David Crystal at the time and remain so. For those who haven’t seen this video clip of Crystal defending his stance, I highly recommend it:

The ‘elephant in the room’

How does this affect us as teachers of English?

As I mentioned in the ‘no effect’ section, native speakers’ grammatical knowledge isn’t influenced by their use of text speak, so L2 learners shouldn’t be either. Just as native speakers have to learn this new code, so do learners of English. Basically, if your learners want to know English text speak, they should be taught it as a separate entity in its own right.

What do you think?

Do you share my thoughts? Please feel free to let me know in the comments section below.

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21 Responses to 3 contrasting views on the effects of text messaging on English grammar

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  3. Hmm. I lean towards #3 these days. It all comes down to genre. Text messaging is it’s own genre and through its evolution over the last 10 years, it has developed style of its own. I would argue, however, that with the (slow) improvement of predictive text, it makes abbreviations less and less likely. I notice on my own phone (iPhone 4), that 4/5 it predicts my word correctly, relieving me of misspellings. For this reason, I tend not to abbreviate words or even use trendy spellings (back in the day I wrote ‘kewl’ instead of ‘cool’, for example, which now would not be possible without exerting some effort).

    Where I see the lack of proper punctuation (or even none at all) and weakened grammar is in platforms without this predictive function, like Facebook statuses. I admit it bugs me when I see poorly constructed sentences there from otherwise intelligent people, but again I wonder if I confuse this evidence of degrading skill with simply a genre expectation.

    When it comes down to proper grammatical or mechanical writing, our students won’t get by with adopting either of these conventions into their more formal writing genres.

    • Adam says:

      I think I’m right with you on this one, Tyson. I’d agree with you that text speak is its own genre with a definable set of conventions, as much a type of writing as an essay or a shopping list. I’m not particularly worried about it, and have seen pretty much no evidence of it in student writing.

      As far as what we witness on Facebook and the like, I’d say it’s merely a symptom of people with a poor grasp of grammatical conventions writing publicly more than they would have in the past rather than their grammar having deteriorated as a consequence of the action of writing in this genre.

      • Huh. Yes, I guess that might be what the phenomenon is instead of lack of caring: we are exposed to more examples of writing from more people than we’d otherwise have been. Sometimes it surprises me from people I know and talk to, but have never seen write.

        • Adam says:

          I think back to my days ay university, where I would proofread friends’ essays before they handed them in… some of the most nonsensical claptrap I’ve ever read! It was inconceivable that they could have such a poor grasp of grammar; it doesn’t surprise me at all when I see them still making the same *basic* mistakes when they leave comments on Facebook.

        • I look back at MY essays and am appalled…

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  9. RobOak says:

    As laborious as it is, I always use punctuation and hardly ever use abbreviations in text messages. Years ago, when I had a ‘pay as you go’ payment plan and my simple phone only allowed me to type 160 characters per message, things were different. Now, my ‘smart phone’ automatically concatenates my messages and my qwerty keyboard allows for a touchscreen keyboard experience so I can type unhindered, most of the time. The exception is twitter, where you are forced to ABRV8 CNDNSE N SHOEHRN UR TXT IN2 NONSNSICL #TGS (^0^) //

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  11. Adam says:

    Thanks, Rob.

    I must confess I do the same as far as messaging is concerned. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the *code*, it’s just that I’ve always preferred to write in a way I feel comfortable doing, which has never included substituting -ate with 8. For me, it’s just like dressing in a formal way even at places that don’t require a dress code: you have to do what feels right for you!

    As far as Twitter is concerned, I’ve on occasion abandoned writing a Tweet completely rather than do what you showed in your comment! Apparently, the 140-character limit is set to be doubled in the near future, thus giving old folks like me less to worry about :-)

  12. Nicola says:

    It should be David Crystal and me by the way!

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  15. Huw Jarvis says:

    We need to remember that language is a means to an end and that end is communication. We also need to recognise that language is constantly changing although arguably at a quicker pace with computer mediated communication than ever before. So text language corrupting English is IMHO simply a ridiculous notion.

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