Friday, April 25, 2008

Further evidence that the Apocalypse is upon us.

First off, I borrowed today's heading from Esquire, which has long used it as a recurring caption in its annual "Dubious Achievement Awards" issue—an always-uproarious celebration of the most tragicomic aspects of politics and pop culture from the previous year. In truth, that heading expresses an opinion that's somewhat stronger than I really feel about our topic here: the new study showing that text-speak (that combination of Web shorthand and emoticons) is increasingly showing up in scholastic writing assignments. I saw/heard quite a bit of hand-wringing and vituperation on morning news shows today.

I do have to say: This surprises people?

Anyway, I have a dog in this race, because in addition to being a writer, I've also taught writing, including freshman composition. Literally "Writing 101." The trend was just starting when I did my last teaching, back in 2005. In those days the most common symptoms were the occasional appearances of a "btw" or a "b/c." Just once, as I recall, I got an "IMHO."* Apparently things are much worse now, to the extent that students sometimes imbue their classwork with an "LOL" (at the end of lines that presumably were meant to be funny) or even a little :) or the slightly more familiar ;) where a student feels that such emotional punctuation is appropriate. (My daughter, bless her, who is 37, went through a spell a few years back where she'd use several exclamation points and some form of smiley at the end of almost every sentence of every email, exactly as if it were in fact required punctuation.)

One of the trend-watching prognosticators quoted in several of the articles I read on the new study tells us that these chat-based communication protocols may have numerous effects on the way formal writing is done in the future. Among other things, says this expert, we may simply abandon the practice of beginning each sentence with a capital letter. For the benefit of the one person reading this who doesn't have a cell phone (or who doesn't use it for sending typed-out messages), texters seldom bother with capital letters.

I tell ya, folks—and if you've been reading along, you know that this has been happening to me a lot lately—I have two levels of reaction here and they're not at all in sync. My gut reaction, as someone who loves the language and its proper use (and loves it even more when the writing shows signs of actual erudition), is that this is indeed an early omen of the collapse of civilization. (I caps? Somewhere, e.e. cummings** must be LHAO.) I'm still one of those holdouts who generally insists on using most of the niceties of formal writing even when I'm having a chat online. (I even use commas around clauses, for crissake.) I just like the way it looks on the "page."

OTOH, part of me feels that anything that gets kids writing—at all—can't be entirely bad. In that Pleistocene era just before AOL came along (and suddenly even kids in Bangladesh had their own MySpace page), the statistics on reading and writing were abysmal. Horrific. Nobody read, nobody wrote. Period. All communication among teens took place in person or via telephone. Though nobody really reads today either, at least the Internet forces young people to use (or abuse) the written language. It forces them to put their thoughts in a comprehensible format, and to strive to be succinct (instead of larding everything they say with all that verbal throat-clearing that's so common today among high-schoolers). Maybe—who knows—they'll actually develop more of a fondness for written expression than their forebears from 20 years ago, and maybe that fondness will stay with them as they mature. And maybe as they mature, they'll want to write at a bit higher level.

Like, say, my daughter, who finally stopped using all those exclamation points. Now if I can just cure her of the smileys....

* People who say that almost never mean it, of courseat least not the "humble" part.
** Most scholars agree that Cummings' name should be spelled conventionally: E.E. Cummings. However, it's often seen as I've shown it here, which helps drive home the point I'm making in the post.


Elizabeth said...

LMAO. IMHO, Steve, this tendency is terribly annoying, yes. OTOH, it shortens the writing process and gets us to the point faster. BTW, I feel somewhat embarrassed for using so many LOLs and :) and ;), but, OTOH, I enjoy them too much nowadays to quit (on my own). I tend to laugh quite a bit in my daily life and there is, frankly, no good way to convey that in quick e-mail communications. JMHO. LOL.

BTW, you know you should expect a whole bunch of similar responses now, peppered with the lovely acronyms just for the heck of it. Right?

RevRon's Rants said...

Like you, Steve, I regret the way we seem to be reducing the caliber of language to ever lower common denominators. On the other hand, if everybody was able (and motivated) to elucidate clearly, my income level would drop significantly.

On yet another hand (we do have three, don't we?), I perceive language - and the mechanical means of sharing our thoughts - as tools. If I am in conversation with contractors working in my house, the "tools" I utilize to communicate my ideas may well be somewhat different than those I would use to communicate with a client who has retained our services to complete a thesis for publication.

As to the use of shorthand, smilies, and other symbols (not to mention the lack of caps), I attribute much opf this trend to the awkwardness of input devices. My cell phone has no QWERTY keyboard, but even if it did, it would be the size of a business card, at best. Even when I'm on a creative roll, I can barely sustain 30wpm on a full-sized keyboard, using at most, 4 fingers. And I write for a living. Limit me to a business-card sized keyboard with no shift keys, and you're lucky to get any caps at all, or even much in the way of punctuation.

Of course, in keeping with my third-hand disclaimer above, I am less careful with informal dialog than in I am while pursuing my professional efforts, as evidenced by the frequent typos you will find in my messages (Such as the errant "n" in an previous message).

I guess my only real concern with the texting phenomenon is that people who text extensively tend to allow their less-than-literary practices to carry over into all forms of communication, out of habit, if nothing else. But since I'm neither a teacher nor an acquisitions editor, I guess it's NBD to me. LOL!

Anonymous said...

I never felt comfortable with the "smileys" and LOLs of "text talk." If my joke was funny, my words should be able to do this message across. I should not have to give prompts for that. That is the art of writing.

Anonymous said...

I teach literature and I have noticed the lack of reading ability. No one seems to be able understand subtext or do close readings anymore. It has been said literature is dying, because it takes too long to read! I teach creative writing too and have few readers in my classes. They ask me what "devices" can they use to be better writers. I say, "read." If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. What goes in always comes out.

Anonymous said...

"I do have to say: This surprises people?"

Did you not mean "ask" instead of "say"?

Steve Salerno said...

OK, taking our Anons in order:

1. Good point. It's like italics (which, I know, I have a tendency to overuse). Editors will tell you (and have told me) that if the writing is thoroughly competent, the reader knows where to supply his own emphasis. Still, I have a tendency not to "hear it right" unless I see the itals. In defense of the LOL crowd, sometimes an LOL is used as a sort of "attaboy" ("attagirl"?) for a person who just said something unusually funny. So you wouldn't necessarily append it to the end of your own joke--but a listener might easily use it to pat you on the back. In that context, it's not quite as egregious, I think you'll agree.

2. Subtext? Close readings? Are you kiddin' me? In my classes I encountered a jaw-dropping inability to even understand face-value meanings! I was teaching college freshman and I'd come away astonished that some of these people had even managed to get passing grades on the verbal portion of their SATs. It was unbelievable, how bad was the overall level of reading and writing--from kids who allegedly earned their way into college.

3. No. I don't think so. Doesn't it make sense as written?

roger o'keefe said...

I think you're really reaching in looking for an upside here, Steve. What you describe here (and have described previously about your experiences in teaching writing) is or should be a subject of grave concern to every parent of a school age child. Thankfully mine are grown and out of college

Frankly I don't think kids should even be allowed to converse with one another in such terms. It cheapens the language and allows people to get comfortable with the idea of taking the easy way out and sounding like complete morons. The fact that this kind of conversational speech is showing up in scholastic writing only proves my point.

What has happened to the reverence for education and the insistence on meeting uniform standards?

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: A large part of "what has happened" is the self-esteem movement. That's not the only cause, by a long-shot. But it's certainly part of it. Remember some years back when a fair segment of inner-city kids couldn't pass muster on tests in standardized English, so the educational system began pushing to accept Ebonics as an alternative language? That was the same deal. If they can't meet your standards, you accommodate theirs.

Anonymous said...

"No. I don't think so. Doesn't it make sense as written?"

Are you asking a question or making a statement? If you are asking a question it is: Ask with the ? If you are making a statement it is: Say without the ?

Steven Sashen said...

If they can create emoticons that make every written declarative sentence sound like a question (to mimic the intonation contours of most young speakers), then I'll KNOW the Apocalypse is upon us... but I'll shoot myself in the head before I hear the hoofbeats.

Anonymous said...

I'm the Luddite without the cell phone, so thanks for acknowledging me. When i was in college, my etymology professor opined that the English language was headed toward the monosyllabic grunt. If he had only known about emoticons, he would probably have shortened his academic career considerably by committing suicide. Sometimes a lack of foresight is a blessing!

Anonymous said...

Another annoying tendency of teens/young adults is to repeat the last letter of a word at the end of a sentence (if they're even able to form a sentence), such as: "I had the worst day everrrr." I don't understand how these things originate, but I agree that it is sad.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon (5:21 and 6:53), somehow it seems that this dialog has gone on for longer than it's worth, but I guess I would respond that asking something is still saying something. Is it not? All asking is saying. Sure, I guess it would've been a more conventional sentence if I used ask instead of say. But it certainly didn't seem wrong to me as written. And the more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that the reason I like it better the way I wrote it is that the "question" I ask is really rhetorical, and thus more of a statement. I'm asking what I ask ironically. So in this case, say might even be the preferred construction.

Maybe you're trying to nitpick my grammar/usage in an effort to prove that I shouldn't be so darn haughty about text-speak and such--and if that's the case, look, have at it. I never claimed perfection. But at least I strive for it, or at least for good writing, and I think I generally do a decent job, given that I'm working without a net(i.e. bereft of editor/proofreader, etc.)

RevRon's Rants said...

Y'know what's funny? I can remember my parents' friends bemoaning the idiosyncrasies of my generation's communication, just as we are doing here. I can also remember us kids laughing at them for it. And here a few of us actually turned out semi-literate. I guess curmudgeon-ness is an inevitable, genetically-transferred condition.

Oh, yeah... :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, there's absolutely merit to what you say, Ron, but remember, I'm not necessarily going as far out on a limb here as, say, Roger: I'm not condemning the kids for talking that way among themselves. I'm simply wondering at the usage of that kind of talk in "scholarly" writing...all the more so if the net effect is as that one expert predicts: that eventually formal writing will accommodate to web-speak, rather than vice versa. I think you have to admit, that would be a major cultural revision, for better or worse. (To be honest? I don't expect that to happen. I'm just thinking aloud about the prospect.)

RevRon's Rants said...

As long as we're harumphing (harumph, harumph), what's with the rampant over-use of the letter "Z?"

Keep a look out... It's Pop CULTure! All started with that insidious socialist television show that was conceived to subtly indoctrinate children in the ways of Marxism:

Sesame Street!

"This program has been brought to you by the letter..."

RevRon's Rants said...

"(To be honest? I don't expect that to happen. I'm just thinking aloud about the prospect.)"

I don't think the literary sky is falling either, Steve. But it is kind of fun watching folks scramble for cover. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Oh my goodness... See what you started, Steve? You've brought the language police to your doors. And don't mind me saying that you asked for it (or was it stated it?). Further evidence that the Apocalypse is upon us. And there be dragons now, for sure.

For someone like me (like I?), whose English is the second language, this level of sophistication is clearly too much (too high?). Ask vs. say? Whoa. Some of us (i.e. -- or is it e.g.? -- me, or is it I?) still struggle here with forming coherent sentences, never mind such evolved linguistic dilemmas.

I applaud your vigilance, Anon (of course it's an Anon), and hope that you stay on task of correcting us all from now on (by all means, do not limit your expertise to Steve's statements). There is a wealth of mistakes to be fixed here, in my own posts only, beginning with February this year. Us (we?) bilinguals tend to be verbally clumsy by nature, you know. So have at it! (Gosh, not sure whether this is a correct English expression. Reaching anxiously for my Webster now...)

P.S. ;) (Oh, yes -- why not. It's Friday, after all.)

Chad Hogg said...

I read this news article with much trepidation but little surprise; I have peers and younger siblings who have adopted similar conventions in all forms of communication. As a (relatively) early adopter of Internet technology, I recognize that there are reasons behind the formation of many of these memes: emoticons provide an approximation to the visual feedback common in face-to-face meetings but otherwise impossible in a text-based means of communication; acronyms act as a form of shorthand, allowing people who type much more slowly than they speak to engage in nearly real-time communication; lack of capitalization and punctuation allow users of hand-held devices to avoid hunting through menus or other cumbersome interfaces; 1337-5|*34|< originated as a way to avoid word filters; etc.

The engineer in me appreciates each of these as clever solutions to specific problems, and I can also appreciate their use for ironic or nostalgic purposes. To see this in supposed formal writing, however, is shameful.

Pet peeve number 2: Please do not type "ROFL" unless you are actually rolling on the floor laughing.

k thx, bye

(Sorry, I could not resist the temptation.)

Anonymous said...

Roger, lighten up man! I know Steve doesn't like the personal stuff so I won't go there, but like the Rev says not everything that happens in today's generation is a sign that the sky is falling. Life is about growing and evolving and just because (or b/c?) maybe my generation does things more informally doesn't mean it's *worse*.

sassy sasha said...

so is the purpose of this blog now to bash the current generation in every way possible? i admit we haven't lived up to alot of standards people set for us but maybe those standards weren't right for us anyway, so many of the socalled adults i know seem to so sad and bitter. is that the same fate you wish for us?? it always seems older people begrudge us everything we do that's lighthearted and fun.

i agree with the last anon, lighten up! and not just roger

Steve Salerno said...

It's a fair point, Sasha. I do think you may be overreacting just a bit. But certainly from your perspective, I can see where someone your age might look at my generation and say, "Who the hell are YOU to teach us how to be happy and live 'good' lives?" Thanks for weighing in.

Elizabeth said...

Sassy Sasha, I agree with you (and last Anon) that we, old curmudgeons, need to lighten up here. This is not the end of civilization. It is a change necessitated by the progress of technology, and one which does not mean that young people are going to the hell of stupidity in droves. They are not. In fact, they are savvier and more sophisticated, technologically, than we have ever been (or will be). And perhaps we, the verbally gifted old geezers, are the anomaly here, destined for extinction in the future, as the preferred modes of communication will become purely visual. Just a thought.

P.S. And, as an old curmudgeon myself, I embrace the emoticons and acronyms wholeheartedly. They are the best invention since sliced bread, imho. It does not mean that I would use them in a scholarly paper, but here, on e-mail, they are life-saving devices. C'mon, think of the many situations when a strategically placed LOL or ;) or :) not only saved the day, but also someone's face -- and possibly a relationship. And consider the many times, on this blog even, when a missing ;) or :) needlessly ruffled someone's feathers (as irony does not always come through in the written text). LOL.

Anonymous said...

Sasha, I teach literature and I am not down on college students. I have learned quite a bit from them and hopefully they have learned something from me. I think learning is an open exchange. They taught me about graphic novels and I explained how Shakespeare is everywhere. As writers, we are always in dialogue with the past and what has gone before. We are always building on something, whether that be a germ of an idea to a catchy phrase. It is also amazing to help them find their creative voices and articulate their thoughts. The pen is mighty for a reason.

Once upon time, Latin and Greek were staples of college life. They no longer are requirements, but I do suggest that the classes should be taken to further along one's education. Especially, if one is dreaming of an English degree or a career in the medical fields. I understand that education is fluid, but I also believe there is something to be gained from learning how to be a good reader and writer without shortcuts. One is able to enjoy rich text, understand nuances in writing, and communicate better. I just want to see my love for words be appreciated a little better.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sasha - I think you hit upon a really good point. When someone is giving advice, it would seem like a good idea to look at them and see if they appear to be happy. And I don't mean the manic, "my hands are shaking, I'm so goddam happy" kind of person, but rather the kind who can allow others to realize their own victories and even make their own mistakes, without having a lot invested in how they do it (beyond harming themselves or others, of course).

Common sense would dictate that we would want to emulate the behavior of someone who actually seems to be enjoying their life. Of course, that's just my (not-so) humble opinion!

Each generation has screwed up some things for the next generation, yet feels the need to judge those "damn fool kids." And each generation has done some things to improve life for those who follow, and is quite willing to remind them of it, loudly and often.

By the same token, the next generation will find their own things to improve upon, along with their own things to screw up. Their kids will pretty much overlook the one, and rag on the old farts for the other. It'll be your turn in due time, and despite any oaths you may take to the contrary (we all took those same oaths, though most of us have long forgotten them), you will inevitably rise to your own level of curmudgeonly judgment. Best get ready for it. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

I have some definite feelings on the implications of what the Rev has added here, but I think I'll hold my tongue till we see what others may have to say on the subject.

"Hold my tongue"--that's an amusing visual, isn't it?

Elizabeth said...

"Hold my tongue"--that's an amusing visual, isn't it?

Only if you do it with the third hand, Steve (see RevRon 1:10).