April 22 • 06:21 AM

What are you saying?

How technology may threaten the English language

September 19, 2007
It's been said that the only thing that separates Great Britain from America is their common language. Fortunately even with such quaint terms as "boot" for trunk and "nappy" for diaper, etc. we do manage to get along quite well considering England gave us Shakespeare and takes great pride in the fact she is our mother tongue.

The changes in English that have occurred since we broke away from the mother country are many, as one can easily tell from looking over the additions to the recent dictionaries and the words that have been added or subtracted from the canon so to speak. I don't believe that these changes have had quite as much effect on our language as technology however. Take for example the impact of the computer, e-mail and text messaging on our writing and attitudes toward language in general.

There used to be a time when people only communicated with each other by letter. The letters written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were usually written in longhand and their authors took great pride in their composition skills.

Later, when the typewriter came along, the art of handwriting began to disappear and, at least in my case, that was a good thing since mine is barely legible. But even so that didn't mean I did not take some pride in my composition.

Enter the computer, e-mail and more recently text messaging. Anybody with a Blackberry and cell phone now can text message anybody anywhere, limited only by the 160 character message capacity of the cell phone screen—and therein lies the problem.

Abbreviation! Because of the text limit whole words and sentences have been changed. Words like "great" have become GR8 and phrases like "rolling on the floor" have been truncated to ROFL.

As my wife will attest I am a confirmed gadget freak but to be honest I have to draw the line somewhere, and I do it with text messaging. Not only do I not need a Blackberry but I couldn't text message on my cell phone if my life depended on it. Learning to type may well have been my salvation in college but somehow the idea of doing it with just my thumb without looking at the tiny keyboard is more than I can take.

To make matters worse I have seen people cell phoning in their cars and sending text messages while they are supposed to be driving, but that's another issue. What does concern me is the effect that text messaging has on our English composition.

According to recent USA today article an English teacher "flagged the use of '4' for "four" in an essay. When the student said she was so used to text messaging that she didn't notice it the teacher began looking at other essays and discovered that her students "routinely used" abbreviations to the point where they "don't know how to spell the word correctly."

The teacher, Ruth Maenpaa, was quoted in the article as saying that she worries more about the subtle and deeper aspects of text-speak because it relies on "brevity, simple word choice and sentence fragments" which result in more and more teenagers struggling "to compose essays of any length and cohesive logic… affecting their intellectual endurance."

"Intellectual endurance" is a very good way to put it. Of course there is no way to tell what other changes the computer electronic step- children will wreak on the language and while some of it might be for the better, if it destroys the art of good writing we will be in a bad way.

As far as the use of the language, we academics too need to watch our writing style. When I was teaching I once got a memo from an administrator that was so filled with jargon that it took me nearly a week to translate. Why is it that academics can't seem to write in simple declarative sentences?

I should confess I have been guilty of jargon myself at one time or another, but now that I have been out of the loop so to speak I can understand why the general public can be sometimes confused by the way we write. That of course goes double for politicians who seem only able to talk in euphemisms rather than plain English, but that's another story.

Email Eric at

Castle Creek
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