When people talk about textspeak — the acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons used in electronic communication — their arguments (complaints, really) are usually framed around the idea of a generational decline. Kids text too much. Kids are forgetting how to spell and use proper grammar. College students are turning in term papers littered with textspeak!
It's the latest iteration of the same old story: Youngsters are ruining the language, and we are all doomed. But of course, just as in every previous iteration of the story, the language will be fine, and we are not doomed. Well, the youngsters aren't anyway.
English professor Anne Curzan, who in 20 years of teaching has never seen an essay using textspeak, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how textspeak in the classroom can be a great teaching tool. She describes an exercise she does with her students to help them discover the implicit rules of their electronically mediated communication or "EMC" (not a textspeak abbreviation but an academic one). Rules? critics might say. Isn't EMC just a random, disorderly corruption of English? Apparently not:
One student noted that his dad texts like a junior-high-school airhead. His dad, it appears, doesn't yet have control of the stylistic choices that constitute 'sophisticated texting.' For several semesters now, I have asked students to compile with me a list of EMC etiquette rules, and I am struck by how detailed, creative, and consistent the rules are. Anyone who says that text language is chaotic isn't paying enough attention to the system of rules that users have developed to move real-time conversation into written form. [Chronicle of Higher Education]
If students notice when the rules are being broken, then there must be rules. Older people, who don't get as much exposure to the conventions, get the conventions wrong. Do you use too many acronyms and abbreviations? Do you miss the subtle distinction between "ok." "ok!" and "ok…"? Do you still use LOL to represent laughter when it often means "just kidding"? ("hahaha" is a better choice for laughter.) Then you might be showing your age.
That's okay. It just means that if you don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules, you need to spend some time being exposed to them. The same goes for people who don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules of formal written English. Curzan, as an English professor, has the job of being that expert for the youngsters she teaches, and she has found an ingenious way to use what they know to help them learn what they might not yet know. Once they go through the exercise of discovering the rules of the systems they are most comfortable with, they can see "that the conventions of formal academic writing are just another set of rules for writing well in a specific register — maybe not as 'fun' as EMC but not in any way an alien exercise."
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