Saturday, 6 May 2017

OMG! Is texting wrecking our language?

How many times have you heard someone say that texting is ruining your spelling? Or, perhaps even more dramatically, the whole English language? It’s a point of debate that has only intensified with the advent of smartphones and permanent connection to the Internet wherever you go, but – as you may not be surprised to hear – linguists find that the situation is actually more complicated than that.

- See you l8er?

Sali Tagliamonte, along with various colleagues and students at the University of Toronto, did a study between 2009 and 2010, where they collected almost 200,000 words of data. These were conversations from emails, texts and instant messenger conversations, which mostly came from Facebook – all forms of computer mediated communication, or CMC for short. The students, along with these samples, were also asked to show a piece of formal written work, as a point of comparison. Tagliamonte chose to analyse three different linguistic features across the corpus: acronyms and other short forms, such as lol; intensifiers, such as really or literally; and future temporal reference, or more specifically, the use of go in the future tense. After checking their frequency across the four formats, Tagliamonte found some interesting results.

Unsurprisingly, the formal written work had no acronyms, and very few intensifiers; only very, out of all of them, showed up. As for the future tense, the only attested form was will – bog-standard formal English. So far, so boring. Where the interesting divisions lie is when looking at the different types of CMC.

Emails were found to consistently be the most formal, with writing coming in much larger chunks than their texted or messaged counterparts, and very few acronyms or intensifiers. Then there was a tie between SMS (texts) and IM (instant messages), with more rapid exchange of turns, and far more acronyms and intensifiers. In particular, the intensifier so was very common in the SMS corpus, probably because this was back in the dark ages of character limits on text messages. On the other hand, going to as a temporal marker was actually less common than its other future tense counterparts. This suggests that, contrary to Tagliamonte’s original prediction, the use of going to is actually more conservative than other shortened forms such as i’ll and ima. The upshot of these observations, though, is that the students had stable registers across each form of writing, with the grammar remaining stable in each medium.

Another interesting observation was the trajectory of the acronym lol. Evidence in this corpus shows it is still the most popular of all CMC acronyms, but it has been found to have decreased in use, before increasing again. By examining its placement in the sentence (whether it was used in the middle of a phrase or at the ends), Tagliamonte found that it was usually used at the end of sentences and standing alone, suggesting it is now being used as filler.

Of course, the study still has some drawbacks. For one, as Tagliamonte notes, there was still a strong distinction between texts and instant messages back in 2010, as not everyone had smartphones with full access to the Internet. Now that everyone uses Whatsapp, iMessage, or whatever other messenger app you care to use, the distinction between texting and instant messaging has been blurred. If the study were to be repeated now, therefore, there would almost be no point in separating the two as different categories. There is also the issue of emojis; is it possible that the popular lol has now been overthrown by😃? Regardless, however, it is fairly certain to say you won’t be writing “omg Macbeth was so crazy lol” in an English essay any time soon!


Tagliamonte, S. A.  in collaboration with Dylan Uscher, Lawrence Kwok, and students from HUM199Y 2009 and 2010 (2016). So sick or so cool? The language of youth on the internet. Language in Society 45: 1-32.

doi: 10.1017/S0047404515000780


This summary was written by Marina Merryweather