Monday 11 February 2013

R u tryin to b formal?

Nowadays, it’s hard for us to imagine a life without mobile phones.  Texting and instant messaging are as much, if not more, a part of our daily life as phone calls and emails.  For example, since 2008 in the USA there has been a huge increase in the amount of texts sent, with teenagers using their phones to text much more than to talk and half of them able to do so blindfolded!

Over the past fifteen years or so a language of texting has evolved and continues to develop.  The types of ‘textisms’ that people might use include shortened words (e.g., tues instead of Tuesday); missing letters (e.g., & instead of and); missing apostrophes (e.g., dont for don’t); ‘emoticons’ (e.g., ;-)); capital letters to express strong emotions (e.g., I AM ANGRY) and surrounding words with special symbols to intensify feeling (e.g., I **love** you).

There has been a mixed reception to the rise of texting and instant messaging with some educators, and particularly the media, advocating that it is causing young people to lose the ability to write in acceptable English prose and even destroying the English language itself.  Most linguists, like David Crystal in his book Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (2008, Oxford University Press) are more measured in their approach.  Crystal himself feels that texting may actually help children’s writing and that it actually requires ‘sophisticated abilities in reading and writing’ (p.157). 

Unfortunately, as yet there has been a limited amount of research into this area and what does exist is conflicting, with some studies finding that texting aids and others that it hinders literacy.  Five researchers in the USA (Rosen, Chang, Erwin, Carrier and Cheever) were keen to investigate whether texting affects young people’s ability to write.  They examined the writing of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who, despite having varying educational backgrounds, were all experienced texters.  Rosen and his colleagues were keen to discover whether females or males used textisms more often in their writing and whether their educational background had any bearing on this use.  They examined the use of textisms in both formal and informal writing, asking the participants to write a formal letter of complaint and an informal description of what it feels like to be unhappy, as well as surveying them on how often they used different types of textisms.

They found that the female participants sent more texts and used more textisms than the males. This could be for a psychological reason as it has been found that girls tend to mainly use texts to establish and maintain relationships.  This takes longer and uses more words than just conveying concrete information, which is the reason males have generally been found to text.

An interesting result was that a more frequent use of texting and instant messaging, and particularly of using shortened words when texting, seemed to relate to a worse standard of formal writing amongst the participants. This suggests that daily texting may well be carrying over into the participants’ formal writing. However, these results seemed to reverse when it came to informal writing, as a more frequent use of texting and instant messaging related to a better standard of informal writing amongst the participants in the study. 

So, texting seems to have a negative impact on formal writing but a positive impact on informal writing.  It seems that daily texting serves as good ‘practice’ for writing in an informal style.  This may be especially true for those participants with a less formal educational background for whom writing texts and instant messaging may be the only writing practice they are engaged in on a daily basis.  This could indicate that young people in general are able to express more thoughts by using the shortcuts that textisms give them and this is especially beneficial when they are asked to write about their feelings and emotions.  Whatever the reasons may be, it is clear that a complicated relationship exists between texting/instant messaging and writing, one that certainly deserves further investigation.

Larry D. Rosen, Jennifer Chang, Lynne Erwin, L. Mark Carrier and Nancy A. Cheever (2010). The Relationship Between “Textisms” and Formal and Informal writing Among Young Adults. Communication Research 37:420- 440.

doi: 10.  1177/0093650210362465

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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