Author: Scott Warnock, English, Drexel University
There is a sturdy tradition of generalized complaints that student writing is terrible. While these complaints are an age-old problem, in 1975 Newsweek published “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” alerting its readers about the nationwide bad writing of “your children” and zeroing in on a few culprits, which included a newfangled emphasis on “‘creativity’ in the English classrooms” and “the simplistic spoken style of television.” Recently, this criticism has been articulated in a different way: Digital technology is ruining students’ grammar. So, as young Johnnys and Jennys peck out texts or emails or social media posts, they are paradoxically—and unwittingly—fueling arguments that their ability to use language is disintegrating. People look at texting shortcuts or the abbreviationand jargon-filled communicative environments of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and other social media sites, and lament that digital writing is causing young people to butcher grammar. An unstated implication of these beliefs might be that digital writing is harming the next generation’s ability to think clearly.
We need to put to rest the idea that digital forms of writing pose a threat to overall writing ability. In particular, we must address claims of specific cause-and-effect between digital writing and bad grammar. There are three main problems with this bad idea: (1) Complaints about writing deteriorating because of digital technology are simply part of a history of complaining about the worsening grammar, writing, mechanics, or style of younger generations; (2) the definition of grammar in this context is often wrong; and (3) this bad idea is based on an unproven link between digital writing behaviors and other kinds of writing.
First, the assertion that new forms of communication signal the end of the world is nothing new. Even an intellectual giant like the philosopher Plato was worried. Plato took a look at writing itself—that odd, scribing technology emerging during his time—and sounded the alarm; in his work, Phaedrus, he expressed concern that writing might be dangerous because it could damage our ability to memorize and offered only the semblance of wisdom. Since Plato’s ancient worries, concerns have continued unabated. Education professor Harvey Daniels calls these moments language panics that “are as familiar a feature of the human chronicle as wars.” Daniels says that there has always been “the inevitable sense that everything was fine until the moment at hand, 1965, or 1789, or 2500 B.C., when suddenly the language (be it American English, British English, or Sumerian) began the final plunge to oblivion.”
Writing has a special place in our cultural commentary: Everybody thinks they are an expert, but only when it comes to seeing that things are getting worse—what some writing experts call grammar rants. These rants and the beliefs they represent become intertwined with the way people see writing, particularly in terms of what is thought of as grammatical and mechanical mistakes. In his article, “The Phenomenology of Error,” writing scholar Joseph Williams lists this history of fierce tirades against poor grammar and writing, but he also demonstrates that many “rules of grammar lack practical force.” Williams takes a clever approach to make his point. He repeatedly shows that people, including some famous writers who express strong views about specific writing errors, fail to notice such errors in their own writing. Williams states that we often do not see errors unless we look for them, and he makes this assertion directly about the way teachers read and criticize their own students’ writing. To further emphasize this point, Williams embeds 100 such errors in his own article and asks readers, mostly English teachers, how many they saw; doubtless, few noticed the vast majority of them. As readers, we tend to see errors where we want to, and we ignore errors where we do not expect to find them (such as a published article about writing!). Williams ultimately asks this: If an error is on the page but no one sees it, is it really an error? Does it matter?
The observations or even fears of digital technology-driven or -facilitated error patterns are merely the latest in a long history of misplaced generational critiques about writing. Whether it has been pencils, television, computers, or cellphones, technological culprits of bad writing have always been found: Arguments blaming people (“kids these days!”) extend back through time and are based on skewed views of error and correctness. Those who study the matter understand that languages shift as cultures evolve and technologies change, and seeing such shifts as a kind of deterioration is to fall into step with the same, long history of uninformed pessimism.
What Grammar is—and is Not
These recurring language panics stem from the ongoing suspicion that, for one reason or another, language is being eroded— however flawed such suspicions may be. In this case, specific complaints that digital writing behaviors affect grammar negatively are grounded in misunderstandings about what grammar is. Grammar can have a variety of meanings. In an often-quoted essay, English professor W. Nelson Francis says the way people use the term grammar can range from “the set of formal patterns in which the words of a language are arranged in order to convey larger meanings” to “linguistic etiquette.” This difference of definition is important because when people express opinions about poor grammar, they use the word grammar as if they are talking about sacred, official, absolute rules when they are instead providing views (and accompanying biases) about how they think language should be used correctly. In fact, commenting about Francis’s article, English professor Patrick Hartwell points out that linguistic etiquette is not grammar at all, but usage.
Williams, in his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, offers a further clarification of how people muddle ideas like grammar and correctness; Williams identifies three kinds of rules that people often confuse:
- Real Rules: These “define what makes English English,” such, he says, as an article preceding a noun: the book, not book the.
- Social Rules: These “distinguish Standard English from nonstandard,” such as not using ain’t.
- Invented Rules: “Some grammarians have invented a handful of rules that they think we all should observe,” Williams writes, such as not splitting an infinitive: to quietly leave would thus be wrong to a purist.
Native speakers of English, Williams says, follow Real Rules as a matter of course. The Social Rules, though, are not based on fundamental, inherent language quality; he says the only people who self-consciously follow Social Rules are those “not born into Standard English who are striving to rise into the educated class.” The Invented Rules are closer to what Williams (similar to Robin Zeff) calls folklore. The grammar of the language and the systems and structure of word order and word forms are not the same as preferences of style or perceived niceties of language. When people say “grammar” in such contexts, they mean something closer to “how writing is seen by a particular audience,” and, again, finding error in such contexts is a function of a reader’s judgment of a text, not of the writer’s abilities, talents, or knowledge.
Of course, human beings have always used language to judge and control one another. We understand what it means to say, “She sounds educated.” Teaching grammar in a rigid, this-is-inherently-better-than-that way is irresponsible—and it can be dangerous. English professors Kenneth Lindblom and Patricia Dunn state that such teaching “can help to perpetuate cultural prejudices regarding class and race that are mirrored in what is often referred to as the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ or between ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ language use.” In a critical response to that 1975 Newsweek article, linguist Suzette Haden Elgin articulates this problem of heavy-handed, absolute correctness, pointing out “there is a real problem in trying, however gently, to ‘correct’ language, since there is no firm agreement about what is “correct’:
“Correct” English, by which I assume Newsweek means the so-called Standard American English, is a kind of consensus agreement among numerous differing dialects as to which shared items they are all willing to throw into the stylistic pot. “Correct” English is things like ending written sentences with periods rather than commas and putting “-ed” on the end of regular past tense verbs. “Correct” English is things like not using “ain’t,” and restricting the negatives to one to a sentence, and putting most direct objects to the right of the verb. Things like that.
These types of mistaken ideas about correct English can drive the language panics mentioned. They fuel how people look for and interpret errors and what they see as bad writing of all sorts.
Carrying over the Bad Habits of Digital Writing?
Now digital technology has been tossed into the midst of these flawed ideas. The few studies that have attempted to correlate connections between digital writing behaviors, specifically texting, and grammar woes have used instruments like multiple-choice quizzes to measure things that have little to do with grammar. Linguists have had a field day attacking this kind of research. Linguist Josef Fruehwald says such studies demonstrate the misunderstandings about language and grammar, pointing out that the quizzes that drive most of the research really measure “punctuation, comma rules, spelling conventions, etc.,” and these things are “arbitrary decisions settled upon a long time ago, and have nothing, nothing to do with human language.” In other words, you may not know the spelling difference between “accept” and “except,” but that is not a grammatical issue.
Going further, the idea that digital tools harm writing requires not just a misunderstanding about grammar, but a belief that one form of writing, such as texting, would influence or transfer, perhaps inexorably, to another form, such as an argument paper in school. Numerous studies have found this not to be the case. One research team puts it bluntly: “Textism use does not appear to harm children’s literacy.” In the journal Reading and Writing, another group of researchers studied the relationship between texting and grammar and found considerable inconsistency in writing patterns for different tasks and age groups, concluding that “parents and educators need not be concerned that children’s grammatical knowledge is being consistently or directly compromised when they make grammatical violations in their text messages.” A small study by writing researcher Michaela Cullington, in which she reviewed papers from a number of students, finds no examples of texting shortcuts in otherwise formal school writing. Michaela writes that “texting is not interfering with students’ use of standard written English.” People often vigorously complain that texting is influencing other sorts of writing, but most of those who have studied the matter do not find such a connection.
Questions Not Just about Grammar
The idea that digital technology is destroying grammar is founded in new misunderstandings about digital writing and age-old, generationally tinged misunderstandings about language and grammar. Children today are creating texts at a greater rate than any other generation in history. Indeed, the digital writing they do can often appear unfamiliar to those who did not grow up with such technologies. Historically, a default reaction has been to view such unfamiliarity as a problem, to see the writing as lesser— with the accompanying claim that the “grammar” is bad (perhaps an articulation of “my generation is better than yours!”).
Quelling this bad idea might raise bigger-picture definitional challenges—and not just about grammar. It may call into question, now that digital communications are so ubiquitous, just what people mean when they say “writing.” As Zeff notes, even back in 2007, students were seeing a difference between digital writing and school writing: “They write constantly. Only they do not see that format of communicating as writing.” She says, “My students tell me that writing is something you do in class for a grade. All the other modes are talking.” Redefining what we mean by writing could help clarify some of these critiques.
Regardless, as it stands now, screenagers, digital natives—or whatever people choose to call them—may be the most literate generation ever, yet some stubbornly persist in criticizing their grammar and even claiming that they cannot switch from texting shortcuts to other forms of writing. Instead of viewing e-communications as a cause of worry or harm, perhaps we might instead see the use of digital writing as yet another example of how humans find ingenious ways to make language, in all its systems and nuances, work in new contexts.
Merrill Sheils wrote the “Why Johnny Can’t Write” Newsweek article (December 1975). Suzette Haden Elgin responded with “Why Newsweek Can’t Tell Us Why Johnny Can’t Write” (The English Journal, November 1976). For more about language panics, see Harvey Daniels, Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered (Southern Illinois University Press). There are a number of good pieces focusing on flawed ways of viewing grammar and error; one of the best is Joseph Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error” (College Composition and Communication). Patrick Hartwell’s “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” (College English) is also good, as is the first chapter of Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
For more about how technology has inflected the conversations about eroding language and grammar, see Robin Zeff’s article “The Convergence of Technology and Tradition: An Examination of the Folklore of College Writing Instruction” (Computers & Writing Online). British researchers Nenagh Kemp, Clare Wood, and Sam Waldron have conducted several investigations of this topic, described in articles such as “do i know its wrong: children’s and adults’ use of unconventional grammar in text messaging” (Reading and Writing) and “Exploring the Longitudinal Relationships Between the Use of Grammar in Text Messaging and Performance on Grammatical Tasks” (British Journal of Developmental Psychology). Linguists have pounced on “digital tech hurts your grammar” studies. Two quick, readable reviews of such research include Josef Fruehwald’s “Teens and Texting and Grammar” and Mark Liberman’s “Texting and Language Skills.”
computers and composition, correctness, digital writing, error, grammar, linguistics, texting
Scott Warnock is an associate professor of English and the director of the University Writing Program at Drexel University. He is the author of Teaching Writing Online: How and Why and numerous chapters and journal articles about online learning, computers and writing, and education technology. He has presented and conducted workshops, both onsite and online, about teaching and technology at national conferences and for many institutions. From 2011 to 2016, Warnock served as co-chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee for Effective Practices in Online Writing Instruction, and he co-authored that committee’s spring 2013 publication, A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction. Since 2016, he has served as the vice president of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators.