I’m old enough to remember the debate about whether or not it was appropriate to use the word “text” as a verb. “How are we supposed to conjugate it into the past tense?” we’d say, our voices laden with incredulity. “Say, ‘I texted’? That’s ridiculous.” Merriam Webster records the first use of “text” as a verb in 1998. These days we bandy it about without a second thought.
Since the beginning of texting, some linguists have accused it of being the downfall of the English language. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, John Sutherland, a Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, called texting “penmanship for illiterates” and referred to emojis as “face symbols.” He also predicted that texting was no more than a passing fad, sure to burn out after “a year or two (max).” “If you don’t text now,” he wrote, “it’s not worth learning: in a couple of years voice recognition systems will kick in.”
Ah, well, some articles age better than others, I suppose. I’m sure plenty of Sutherland’s other proclamations weren’t so completely dead wrong.
Language Evolves, And Texting Is Part Of That
Still, Sutherland’s hubris with regard to his ability to predict the evolution of language should serve as a warning to us all, especially those of us who have reached the age of using phrases like “kids these days”: criticism of how young people communicate tends to age very badly.
Gretchen McCulloch, author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language” and co-host of the podcast “Lingthusiasm,” makes the case that texting is just another way to communicate, and is a natural part of our language evolution. She notes that texting has developed its own rules and conventions, but those conventions tend to be highly context-dependent: Older people text differently than younger people. We text friends differently than we text colleagues.
The underlying focus of the communication can be different, too. “The old rules are these top-down, ‘here’s how you use an apostrophe,’ ‘here’s how you use a semicolon’ type of thing,” McCulloch said in an interview with NPR. “The new rules are about: How are other people going to interpret your tone of voice? … The old rules are about using language to demonstrate intellectual superiority, and the new rules are about using language to create connection between people.”
Periods Are Aggressive. Apparently.
Last week, a friend of mine posted the following queery to Facebook: “Both of my teenagers agree that periods in text messages are ‘aggressive.’ Are they broken?” 228 comments later, there was no general consensus on whether periods are aggressive, but specific trends were clear: young people think adding a period is the text equivalent of a death stare. Older people are like, “But … punctuation. It’s the end of a sentence. Hello.”
I send enough texts throughout the day that I tend to side more with the whippersnappers on this one: I leave off periods, and when someone responds with a period I have to pause and consider context before I determine if the person is annoyed with me or just meticulous with punctuation.
McCulloch addressed the contentious period in her interview with NPR too. She said that it makes sense that as texting evolved, the period started to get left off. With formal writing, you need a formal break to mark the the separation between sentences. With texting, the separation is marked by hitting send. Adding a period is redundant.
So, to a young person, the text “awesome” is an exclamation of approval and excitement, whereas the text “Awesome.” might come across as sarcastic. (Think: “Ugh, awesome,” with an eyeroll.)
Texting Isn’t The Downfall Of Grammar, Either
In episode seven of her podcast, “Lingthusiasm,” McCulloch confronts the assertion that kids are ruining language, specifically with texting. One study that was published in 2012 claimed a correlation between the amount of time a kid spent texting and a decline in grammar skills. The media jumped on the study and published various articles parroting the results without actually analyzing the study’s methodologies. When linguists took a closer look at the study, they found that not only was the correlation statistically insignificant, but that it could also be attributed to grade level. And the kids (middle school-aged) were only required to take a 20-question test on grammar. The content of their writing — their ability to clearly articulate their ideas — wasn’t even considered.
According to McCulloch and multiple other studies, informal text speak is not a predictor of poor skills in formal writing. In fact, a 2010 study by M.A. Drouin from Indiana University–Purdue University found that students who texted more scored higher on grammar, spelling, and reading fluency tests.
Kids Are Expressing Themselves Through Writing More Than Ever Before
And doesn’t that makes sense? After all, kids are constantly writing. They’re literally expressing themselves via written word all the freaking time. Teens’ texts might be a hot mess in terms of punctuation and grammar, but that doesn’t mean they “can’t write.”
I write for a living, and the thumb-typed texts I peck out on my phone in personal correspondences differ massively from what I produce on my laptop. On my phone, where I text with my thumbs only, I ignore spelling errors, typos, and other grammar rules (my own and others’) — but only when I’m on my phone. If I’m typing a message on my computer keyboard, I automatically use punctuation, because in that case my fingers are used to including punctuation. My kids do the same. Their texting is a mess, but the writing they do for school assignments follows traditional spelling and grammar conventions appropriate to their grade level and sometimes beyond.
Texting Is Making Language Evolve Even Faster
The more connected we are, the faster language evolves. Every year, hundreds of words are added to Merriam Webster. Not only does our digital connectedness allow new words and phrases to spread with unprecedented quickness, but sites like Urban Dictionary allow older generations to catch on to slang phrases of younger generations and incorporate them into their own lexicon, thereby instantly stripping them of their coolness. (RIP, “on fleek.”)
Texting has become almost like a different language with its own expectations, shorthands, and implied meanings. In terms of the interpersonal sharing of ideas, it has no more or no less value than formal written English. It is a natural part of the evolution of one of the most distinctly human things we do — communicate with language. Our kids will surprise us with their ability to register-switch, or code-switch, between informal text-speak and the kind of language required to compose an essay for school. And they’ll surprise us with their limitless creativity for generating new words faster than we can keep up.