Texting, Writing, and the Difference

I teach English grammar and composition to college students, so when a recent Ted Talk, “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!,” appeared as a podcast, I was instantly interested. In this 14-minute segment, Linguist John McWhorter argues we shouldn’t waste our time worrying about whether or not texting is turning our teenagers into lazy writers. He says as early as 63 AD, folks have bemoaned the deterioration of writing, and this will continue to be the case in generations to come. According to him, texting is not writing at all; it is “fingered speech,” a new paradigm that has given people a chance to learn a new language at rapid speed. Sure, this language is more relaxed, but it is not unlike slang, which is appropriate in certain contexts. He goes on to reason that speech has existed much longer than writing, and we should be able to write the way we talk the same way we can talk the way we write.

McWhorter’s lecture is like a sigh of relief for people overly concerned about the possible demise of writing skills; however, I think the real problem is that most of us don’t realize there is a difference between using “fingered speech” and composing a formal email message. I certainly understand the economical necessity for typing brief text messages and Twitter posts, but how is it perceived when texting blends into other digital platforms including blog posts and emails? How do teachers respond when students hand in essays that were originally composed on their mobile phones (the same device used to conduct the research)? This happens more often then not because many of our beginning writers despise the process of writing, which includes revising, editing, and proofreading.

I often receive emails from students and colleagues with sentences that borrow from texting conventions; for example, they write “r” as an abbreviation for “are,” “u” for “you,” “2” for “two,” and so forth. They pepper their responses with LOLs and BTWs. This happens at the same time that I am teaching my class about purpose, audience, and tone. If we are to recognize there is a difference between the way we speak and the way we write, then we English teachers and linguists alike must do a better job communicating the appropriate contexts in which to use fingered speech, which as McWhorten explains has nothing to do with writing, and I would add, is the opposite of writing well.

My friends and I have a difficult time deciphering between texting and writing too. I explain to them that I avoid editing their text messages or correcting their speech in my head because these are different modes of communication where the conventions of grammar are not scrutinized as much. The explanation helps ease their self consciousness about our conversations. But truth be told, there are times when I am decoding and revising their text-speak because I have developed the habit of seeing words as written language, and to me, written language typically follows certain constructs. In other words, because written language is so complex, the rules for it can not be easily switched on and off. This would account for the inconsistency of text messages themselves. Sometimes they follow the conventions of writing, and other times, when the messager is in a hurry, grammar and mechanics are completely disregarded.

While I wouldn’t call texting a miracle of speech in the same way that McWhorten describes it, I agree it is a convenient way of communicating, just as drawing a symbol of the sun on a rock was convenient when humans invented writing. The texting phenomenon is proof of the recursiveness of language, an example of how it can evolve, regress, and revolutionize the way we transmit messages, and a means by which we connect with each other on a larger scale. My wish is that more of us will understand where texting belongs. When we allow the conventions of informal speech to blend into our longer narratives, essay writing and even formal emails, we are not witnessing a miracle of language but more of a continued escape from our craft.

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