Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Tragic Death of the Written Word

Have modern communication methods, such as instant messaging and texting, detrimentally impacted students’ communication skills, and if so, is this influence a dismal foreshadowing of an illiterate future? Some theories lean toward a rapid decline of intelligent readers in our culture, as indicated in an insightful query by Patrick Tucker, the senior editor of The Futurist magazine and Director of Communications for the World Future Society, where he perceptively inquired, “How can it be that less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, or the percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period (as measured by the NEA in 2007), or that 40 million Americans read at the lowest literacy level?” (Tucker).

Contrasting opinions have been presented by researchers such as Anupam Kathpalia, who astutely revealed that, “Text messaging may not be all that bad. Some experts add that the use of abbreviations is a novel way of communication that demonstrates dexterity and creativity. This method of communication expands our language capabilities and demonstrates ingenuity.” indicating that text messaging actually exhibits imaginative and resourceful communication alternatives to classic writing styles (Kathpalia). While intriguing arguments exist, both damning and defending Short Message Service technology, the ultimate evidence is irrefutable: modern communication methods, such as instant messaging and texting, have unquestionably influenced students’ social skills; and disastrously, the effect has been mostly negative.

To evaluate objectively the consequences of utilizing such technology, one must first understand the technology in question. Short Message Service, or SMS, is a method of sending short, meaning no more than 160 characters, simple messages between two devices that support the service, such as cellular phones; personal computers and other handheld devices are also capable of exchanging these messages. Jennifer Hord explains how these devices are constantly communicating with towers and their subscribers to update and support mobile users and their ever changing locations. In a nutshell, small packets of information are exchanged allowing the central network to know where each device is currently located and how best to continue providing this vital communication. While unknown to the casual customer, this constant exchange of data allows cellular phone calls, text messaging and other exchanges of information between users within a single network and between multiple networks, as well (Hord). The “store and forward” concept is further elaborated upon by Puneet Gupta, a developer for Lucent Technologies, where he describes a message’s journey from the sender, or originator, to a central SMS center from which it is forwarded to the receiver, or terminator. If the receiver is not available, this method of delivering messages allows the data be stored and delivered when the receiver becomes available (Gupta).

In other words, data is persistently being sent to a central location where it is either passed on or stored based on its purpose. If you send a text message to two friends asking if they’d like to meet for lunch and one of them is out of range of their cellular provider and the other is within range, the later will get the forwarded message immediately while the same message destined for the former will be saved and stored until he or she is available to receive the message, at which time it will be released. This may mean that only one friend will respond in time for lunch but you can rest assured that the other will at least know you made the offer. However, just because you are not placing a phone call, downloading information or sending a message does not mean that your device is inactive. On the contrary, your cell phone is hard at work, relentlessly communicating with towers and access points to ensure you can send and receive the messages and calls you expect from your well paid service provider. So, should your message for lunch be in a finely formed sentence with correct punctuation, spelling and grammar? Is this considered writing?

An interesting concept, loosely based upon the theory that texting is just a quick and easy way of communication and not a form of writing, per se, would state that the damage inflicted upon writing being attributed to instant messages is no more destructive than that of slang used within a telephone call, or indeed, a casual conversation between peers. This concept has been explored by Amanda Lenhart and her team of researchers at the Pew Research Center and she discovered that, “Most teenagers spend a considerable amount of their life composing texts, but they do not think that a lot of the material they create electronically is real writing. The act of exchanging emails, instant messages, texts, and social network posts is communication that carries the same weight to teens as phone calls and between-class hallway greetings” (Lenhart). Another dispute against the notion that texting and social media are destroying literacy in young readers and writers is presented by Professor David Crystal, well renowned linguist and accomplished writer, editor and lecturer, who has referred to common beliefs and statements claiming that these modern forms of communication are contributing to the downfall of the English language as being based on unfounded fears established by language myths and simple ignorance. This claim and other similar opinions have not only been the subject of several of his many books, they were expounded upon in an interview by Joy Lo Dico, writer and diarist for the London Evening Standard, specifically referring to Crystal’s bestsellers, A Little Book of Language and Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, in which she reported that the linguist “found that “txt speak” accounted for barely 10 per cent of the contents of the messages exchanged, and noted that abbreviations have always been part of the English language. . . . The breadth of the internet means that language is morphing not just on grocers’ signs and in school playgrounds, but on a far more fundamental level” (Lo Dico).

However, this does not necessarily mean there are no harmful repercussions from the incorrect spelling, lack of punctuation and rampant sentence fragments produced en masse by constant, ceaseless, careless texting. Several studies have shown that students have admittedly let text lingo slip into their school assignments and have shown a general deterioration in correct punctuation and capitalization due to a lack of practice and repetition of employing correct grammar and writing skills. Kristy Roschke mentions all of these trends in her graduate project, The Text Generation: Is English the Next Dead Language?, and goes on to include the fact that teens have even been known to include emoticons, pictorial representations of facial expressions using punctuation marks and letters, in scholastic assignments (Roschke). Truthfully, the inherent danger to most teens as they mature beyond high school and even into, and after, college is the fateful interview in which they will prove their lacking social abilities, horrendous writing capacity and altogether unacceptable communication skills. It seems to be almost offensively ironic that social media is a leading contributor to deteriorating basic social talents.

For example, many studies have attributed lazy attitudes towards relaying accurate information, a lack of common courtesy and even personal relationship detriment to constant texting but the largest concern has been poor communication skills in corporate America as noted by JoJo Tabares, an experienced expert holding a degree in Speech Communication: According to a 2005 article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, employers are complaining about communication skills. Bosses say the biggest failing among college graduates, job applicants, is an inability to speak and write effectively. Communication skills now top the list of qualities employers seek because these are qualities they cannot teach in their two-week new hire training sessions. However, these qualities are consistently at the bottom of the list perspective employees possess at the interview. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, good communication skills were what employers said was most lacking in college job candidates. (Tabares)

It is obvious that formal writing is still essential in the business world and that shortcuts and text lingo are not acceptable forms of vernacular when professional communication is required. A client will not be impressed with the ability to insert a smiley face into the end of a proposal, no matter how charming an expression it may signify; nor will an employer. Bradley Ballard also alluded to the differences between formal and informal writing and when each is appropriate when he remarked that, “Texting is here and shows no sign of retreat. However, neither does formal business writing and telephone skills. The real trick is to figure out which mode of conversation is best for the given circumstance.” What he was referring to was the fact that high school and college graduates will eventually need to communicate intelligently and eloquently with employers, colleagues and clients and that their future employers would be “the first to insist on excellent writing skills”. He went on to explain that a lack of communication skills can be traced back to grade school when he ascertained, “texting has had a negative effect on the writing abilities, grammar and spelling of students enrolled in primary and middle school. Evidence suggests that because these young students do not yet have a full grasp of the basic English writing skills, they have difficulty in making the shift between texting language and Standard English. Those students who were introduced to texting after gaining a strong knowledge of basic writing skills had an easier time switching between the informal text-speak and formal English” (Ballard).

Have texting devices and instant messages destroyed the English language? Are we destined to slip quietly into an illiterate future simply because younger generations choose to abbreviate more and punctuate less? There is no evidence to support either of these fantastic theories; however, what has been proven is that there is a great responsibility laid upon those of us who believe the written word is worth saving to march onward with resolute and unwavering sentence structure, fight bravely with unapologetic punctuation and prove victorious the gallant grammar and magnificent language we hold dear.

© Daniel E. Barndt ~2012

Original Post (with pictures!) @ BarndtHouse

Works Cited

Ballard, Bradley. Text Messaging and Its Effects on Writing Skills and Employment. Yahoo! Contributor Network. 2 November, 2011. Web. 11 July, 2012. text-messaging-its-effects-writing-10325565.html?cat=31.

Gupta, Puneet. Short Message Service: What, How and Where? Wireless Developer Network. n.d. Web. 18 July, 2012.

Hord, Jennifer. How SMS Works. How Stuff Works. n.d. Web. 18 July, 2012.

Kathpalia, Anupam. The Effects of Text Messaging. Ezine Articles. 7 January, 2010. Web. 1 July, 2012.

Lenhart, Amanda. Writing, Technology and Teens. PewResearchCenter Publications. April 24, 2008. Web. 11 July, 2012.

Lo Dico, Joy. Watch what you’re saying!: Linguist David Crystal on Twitter, texting and our native tongue. The Independent. 14 March, 2010. Web. 25 July, 2012.

Roschke, Kristy. The Text Generation: Is English the Next Dead Language? Teaching, projects, portfolios, and archive files. 2 July, 2008. Web. 11 July, 2012.

Tucker, Patrick. Could Written Language Be Rendered Obsolete, and What Should We Demand In Return? Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. 29 January, 2010. Web. 11 July, 2012.