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By Jack Ganssle

Another Take on Twitter Grammar

Summary: I wrote about poor grammar in electronic communication. Here's a rebuttal.

In an article I wrote a few years ago (http://www.eetimes.com/discussion/embedded-pulse/4025603/The-further-decline-of-English) I complained about the practice of tearing English apart for expediency when composing Twitters, email and texting. But Hamish McNab, a young person in Australia, believes I'm wrong. If his email to me about the article is any indication, he's right: it's well-reasoned and beautifully written. Here are his comments:

I am a high school student in Australia, studying linguistics in year 11. I believe that technology is not the main reason for the decline in English, but rather things such as what education provides in schools nowadays, and the contact that people have with literature, especially students. I am not a particularly bright student, and do not jump at the chance to read books, but I have been lead to believe that it is more what our education provides and not the technology that surrounds us.

First off, English in schools is loosing its touch on the basics. Grammar is barely mentioned as a major part of learning, and the teaching of proper use grammar and punctuation is deteriorating. As I am still in high school, it is easy to say that I have been taught little, if not none at all, about the uses of English grammar. Instruction in grammar is left down to self-correction after a neatly constructed essay has been viscously attacked by a red pen. I believe that grammar, punctuation and spelling should be taught in English in schools, no matter the groans that follow it's mention. It is for the good of our ever evolving, ever changing beautiful language, and should be considered important, as it is the basis of English.

Secondly, this is a reflection on me as well as my peers, I have noticed that the connection between people and proper literature - such as books, and literary masterpieces - has lessened somewhat. People are reading less and less these days, mainly due to the busy life styles they lead. In my case, I do not have time to sit down and read a book, even before I go to sleep as I tend to go to bed too late, and wake up too early. Although we are surrounded by language, through texting, the internet, advertising and general usage throughout our environment, we are not privy to outstanding examples of English on a daily basis. The language we read affects the language we use to write, so by reading text messages, chat room conversations, and MSN "speeches" we are confined to short, almost speech like literature. I have noticed this amongst my peers, as they use very precise, short and to the point sentences, with no depth or exploration of meaning. I like to use words to 'fluff' out sentences, and fill them with stuffing, giving them more, less translucent overtones. Anyway, back to my point. Our disconnection with "proper" English is helping to see a decline in the standards of our beautiful language.

Also, about EMC, or Electronically Mediated Communication, I feel that it is not the main reason for the reduction in the quality of English. In fact I think it is helping us. Think about it: if we were not surrounded by so many uses of language, language would have declined a while ago. People nowadays read and write every day. They send text messages, write emails, update their status on Facebook, add a tweet on Twitter, or even complain to someone about something on a blog. The usage of language has increased rapidly over the last decade as new technologies, such as texting, emailing and chat rooms, have become available to us. Just recently I completed a study on texting - looking at the works and theories of David Crystal - which counteracted many myths that are commonly known. Firstly, a common ideology is that kids or younger people are the only people who text. This is wrong. Of course it's wrong. 80% or people who text are about the age of 25. Secondly, the idea that these young people fill their texts with abbreviations that when read properly do not make sense at all. This is not true in any way. A team of linguists from Oxford found that only 6% of words used in text messages are abbreviated. David Crystal's research lead him to find that only 10% of words are abbreviated, whilst the other 90% are normal standard English words, with the occasional misspelling. Thirdly, people have been lead to believe that abbreviations are a modernism of our language. Wrong. Abbreviations have been around for decades. Queen Elizabeth used them. Lewis Carol used them. Charles Dickens used them. A famous example of an abbreviation is the following sentence: YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME. This is a simple sentence, where each word is replaced by a letter with the same pronunciation, i.e. a homonym. People have used abbreviations such as 'C U L8R' for many years, and a classic example is the abbreviation 'SWALK' - Sealed With A Loving Kiss- as found on the back of many hand written letters, many decades ago. Fourthly, people believe that because younger people are leaving the letters out from words they do not know how to spell. But as David Crystal says, for the person to leave out a letter, they must know it is there in the first place and therefore must know how to spell. These "misspellings" are all just ways of saving time and increasing efficiency. Text, and all instant messaging, try to mimic speech, using speed. The only difference between speech and these EMCs is that there is no immediate feedback from the listener. I.e. there is no one receiving the unedited message straight away, giving feedback along the way in the form of "mmhmm, yes, yes, what?, no, of course not, mmhmm, oh, hahaha, yes" etc. Texting tries to mimic the speed of which speech is received by sending quick instant messages, using abbreviations, acronyms and misspellings to speed up the process. That's all that it is, a way of saving time. And fifthly, there have been many rumors that students use 'IM slang' (Instant Messaging slang) in their essays and writing at school. This is absolute nonsense. I have never, ever used an example of IM slang in an essay or writing piece unless I was quoting it from someone. And never ever, would I use it in an exam. Why use it when you know it will inevitably loose you marks? No one I know uses IM slang in their school work, and to quote my teacher not three days ago: "I have never read an essay with an abbreviation or textism in it."

I for one, believe that texting is helping our language, as it allows us to use it, to read and write, and to interact with language on a daily basis. As the saying goes, 'practice makes perfect', and the more people read messages, and write emails, the better their understanding and use of English will become.

And in response to the first point. English isn't entirely about memory. It's about how you use what you have, although being able to remember how to spell a certain word can take you a long way.

Published August 27, 2010