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Are texting and the Internet harmful to English?

November 29, 2008

Hello again,

In a recent interview David Crystal pointed out that using letters and numbers as abbreviations for words is nothing new. He...

...quotes: "YY UR YY UB IC UR YY 4ME" ["Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me"]. This predates the texting phenomenon, which many think is blighting the ability of kids to use English in its more standard form. As far as spelling is concerned, Crystal points out that you need to be able to spell it before working out an abbreviation. Of course that rather depends on whether kids are having a diet only of text messages. If they have never read conventional words, they won’t be able to spell them.
Of course there is some truth in the idea that texting requires kids to be creative and witty. OIC, do I hear you say? Perhaps it actually makes them think about language and its potential. But this is not really the issue. Language as we know is constantly changing. We adapt it to our needs and texting suits what youngsters need to do.
But events also influence how language changes. Spelling became fixed with the invention of printing. Grammar rules had to be revised as Modern English emerged from Old English. What is happening now is as big a shift I believe as printing. The speed at which material has to be produced for texts and the Internet means that grammar and vocabulary are being adapted to the new pace.
There are indeed some casualties. You will find very few apostrophes on the Internet. This means that nouns, even proper nouns are used adjectivally. Thus I read recently: Shannon mother in court/terrorist attack in Mumbai/Obama team to be announced. I think the apostrophe has been sacrificed because it takes content writers too long to work out how to use it. Yet although this apostrophe-free zone is typical of the web and newspaper headlines, it is still expected in formal writing. But the rot has surely set in.
Another influence from the Internet is that colloquial language has spilled over to the written word, which traditionally has always been more conservative and more rule-based. Thus many terms that would be slow to enter the written language now come in immediately they are heard: it’s a big ask (when did the verb become a noun?)/meterosexual/renditions (extraordinary rendition). And of course there are lots of terms associated with Internet activities, whether good or bad: netiquette/chatroom/grooming/newbie/gaming.
Exactly how many changes will have a deep effect remains to be seen. As to whether they are harmful, that again is a separate point. Language change is inevitable; how to judge those changes is perhaps a topic for a separate article.

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  1. Bob Toomey Says:


    I have wondered about that, too, but I am far away from my home, America, and I am not dealing with that stuff in the classroom. I dare to guess that all writing teachers in America would demand non-texted writing, but I could be wrong (I wonder how long they would keep their job if they do otherwise). I agree with you completely that language is fluid and thousands of idioms, slang, texting, and other ways of writing and speaking English have been used during my life. Most of it never made it permanently into the English language. It was the talk of children, and that's what has to be remembered. Most of the text stuff is the talk of children or geeks. They don't get far talking with adults, but it is fun to do with friends. I really think that is what texting really is. Talk between friends. Novels are not going to be written with it.

    Composition writing is not for texting words. Speaking English correctly is important or one's circle of acquaintences will diminish. I don't hang out with people who speak garbage. But I would never stop the children from playing their games.

    Fads come and go. The question I have is, "What's next?"

    Bob Toomey

  1. Martin Bauer Says:

    Well, Bob, while I am not a great fan of texting, nor of the reduced writing of some internet news writers and commentators, it is not necessarily garbage nor is it the product of "children". I suppose we probably should define what we mean by "children". We are speaking/writing philosophically, so we need to define our terms first. And as I recall, when we were mere "children" (teens and early twenties), the people we "hung out" with did indeed bring words and phrases into common usage that our elders thought were garbage. Mark Twain certainly shocked and annoyed plenty of critics when his characters used slang, yet it changed American literature permanently. Can we imagine Hemingway writing like Poe? These usages and their appropriate application is probably worthy of discussion and careful consideration, though.

    On the notion that no novels have been written using texting, that is not quite true...I have in fact heard of exactly that being attempted. Again, while I probably couldn't even read it because I am not a well-versed texter, it is creative, interesting and perhaps even artistic. It speaks to the human need in this day and age, just as dadaism or expressionism spoke to the need of their age(s).

    True, in basic writing for academics or research writing, I am also pretty conservative and encourage my students to write a fairly standard English, but that isn't all of what life and language are about. I certainly find the application of some fixed stylistic rules even to such mundane things as marketing pieces, advertisements, flyers, etc (yes, that has happened to me at a college!) to be heavy-handed and burdensome. What next, rigid grammar applied to poetry?

    And one final thought, novels are sometimes, though perhaps not often enough, talk between friends.

  1. Richard Says:

    For me I see no harm with text style writing. Only thing I do not always understand it. When I seen a text on my mobile it is a great way to saving time. But I not sure I would use in normal writing but I must say already computer terms are use frequently and lol seems to almost become standard these days.

    If apostrophes are left out of writing, even a British town recently decided to leave them out of their place names. All languages are organic and as such have constant changes. Arabic cannot be written as spoken language easily. In this world with constant interaction between different cultures and language groups we import as well as export words and ideas. We all today write and speak a style of English long removed from Shakespeare and even of Dickens.

    I am not one for rigid grammar rules most native speakers of English do not use them correctly anyway. Different English. speakers of occupation, class or nationality use different usage. English Spelling is also difficult because there seem to be too many ways of spelling a particular sound, and too many sounds attached to a particular spelling.

    So is it not time that English make changes in regard to common usage and to overhaul our spelling system. For if English is to be an instrument of universal communication it should do so.

  1. Brian Caulfield Says:

    Brenda this is great reading. I am in China and realize it is three times cheaper to text message in Chinese. English is going through a good thing now. Things like spelling must be simplified for expediency.

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