Author: Christopher Justice, University of Baltimore
Text messaging, or texting, refers to the communicative practice of sending brief messages on cell phones, other personal digital devices, or online instant messaging services using conventional, but more often abbreviated, graphic, or otherwise non-conventional uses of language. One who texts is generally referred to as a texter, and although texts are often composed with alphabetic letters, texters are using an increasingly more sophisticated range of visual and sonic media to communicate through this medium.
Texting became commercially available for the public in the mid-1990s, and since then, its popularity has skyrocketed. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 75% of Americans in 2011 sent and received text messages. Due to this popularity and the unconventional ways texters use language, a potent public backlash against texting has emerged, propagated further by the media and other cultural elites. As David Crystal points out in his book Txtng: The gr8 db8, headlines like these from the mid-2000s have become the norm for how many people understand texting: “Texting and Emailing ‘Fog Your Brain like Cannabis’”; “Texting Does Not Influence Literacy Skills”; and “Texting Deprives Children of Sleep.”
Unfortunately, the myth has continued into the present: In a 2012 Baltimore Sun article, the author reports on a study from Pennsylvania State University that found texting negatively affects students’ grammar skills. More troubling, the article begins with these words, “It probably comes as no surprise to those of us who have read our kids’ composition papers,” and ends with these, “OMG! One more challenge to teaching our kids to write!” Both comments suggest that texting is a major problem causing students to write poorly, a position that oversimplifies and overlooks numerous other important factors that influence how people, especially students, write. Additionally, in a 2014 Los Angeles Times article, a columnist argues that texting produces linguistic and intellectual laziness, predictability, and desperation.
The examples of these doomsday scenarios are too pervasive to fully review here. Nevertheless, according to these positions, texting causes people, especially children, teenagers, and college students, to misspell words, poorly punctuate sentences, and grammatically pollute sentences. (For a counterargument to this bad idea, see Scott Warnock’s chapter elsewhere in this collection.) Given the often-limited space texters have to compose messages (like Twitter’s 140-character limit), many argue that texters’ abilities to compose complex, well-supported arguments is dwindling. Texting also shortens attention spans and distracts significantly when engaging in otherwise important, necessary activities such as reading, working, or driving.
In general, these arguments make this clear: Texting is a major threat to our literacy skills. However, as linguist John McWhorter claims, texting is a “miraculous thing” that marks “an emergent complexity” with how we use language. Texting is a “new way of writing” that we can use alongside traditional writing and “an expansion of [our] linguistic repertoire,” marking a new type of bilingualism that reflects a positive development in our constantly evolving linguistic selves. Or, as Crystal states, “Texting is one of the most innovative linguistic phenomena of modern times.” Texting should be respected and taken more seriously as a sophisticated form of discourse that has the potential to revolutionize how we write and our overall relationship to language.
Texting offers society many positive benefits. For starters, texting’s economic impact is significant: The industry that supports texting’s infrastructure is a lucrative business that employs many people. In general, texting offers efficiency and convenience in how we communicate. Texting allows us to receive information quickly in catastrophic or dangerous situations or when conditions are not conducive to speaking, such as in loud settings or when privacy is needed. Texting offers us useful reminders along with advice, tutelage, and help. As Crystal notes, texting also offers intimacy while preserving social distance. Moreover, Crystal argues, texting cultivates a playfulness in how we use language and communicate with others. Play, as many who study ludology (the study of play) note, can have a powerful, positive impact on communication, creativity, self-esteem, and other behaviors.
More specifically, the myth that texting leads to illiteracy must stop for several reasons. One reason is that in many contexts, texting allows writers more time than speech to formulate their thoughts, and like other types of electronic media, texting also allows ample opportunities to revise and organize one’s thoughts. Second, the sudden and rapid popularity of texting is radically disproportionate to illiteracy rates. If texting causes illiteracy, and if so many people are texting, why are literacy rates not rapidly declining?
Additionally, while abbreviations are popular in texting, they are not a new linguistic phenomenon; one need only read a government contract issued through agencies such as the National Science Foundation or Environmental Protection Agency to realize how useful and ubiquitous abbreviations are. Our language is filled with abbreviations such as a.m. or p.m. to denote time; B.A., M.A., J.D., Ph.D. to denote degrees; Mr., Sgt., VP, CEO to denote titles; HIV, DNA, LSD, and others to denote scientific language; and MD, JAN, or W to denote states, months, or directions. Acronyms (abbreviations with vowels that spell new words) are equally popular: scuba, laser, NATO, OSHA, and AWOL are just a few examples. Contractions are equally popular. Moreover, many of the abbreviations and otherwise truncated uses of language are instigated by efficient uses of the keyboard, which is a provocative and clever use of media and an important hallmark of literacy. Ultimately, the abbreviated language that characterizes texting discourse is a continuation of a historical trend that reveals how people have creatively used language for conciseness and efficiency.
A common criticism levied against texting points to how texters’ literacy skills supposedly decline after texting; however, what more people need to realize are the impressive literacy skills texters possess before texting. To some degree, texting is a magnet for the literate. For example, the ability to text already suggests relative media savvy. You can’t text without having a basic understanding of how texting, cell phones, keyboards, and other media work. Also, when people use informal language in their texts, many understand there are already levels of formality appropriate for different communicative contexts. Try abbreviating or truncating language when you don’t already know the correct spelling of a word or syntax of a phrase.
Moreover, texting positively exercises texters’ rhetorical skills. Since texts are written in various styles, people must know how to match the style of a text with its message, audience, and tone, which for many is a sophisticated rhetorical act that we too often take for granted. For example, texters often already have a sophisticated sense of audience when texting because the medium facilitates frequent communication with vastly different audiences: spouses, parents, bosses, friends, health professionals, grandparents, colleagues, lovers, and so on. Texting also requires people to understand the rhetorical context of a situation: where they will receive the message, what their location is. Understanding these factors is critical in rhetorical communication. Tone is also important in texting since the medium allows for different ways to present tone through punctuation marks, attached photos, and emoticons. Additionally, given the instantaneous nature of texting, many frequent texters are often engaged in kairos, or the rhetorical concept of understanding when the timing and overall context for making an argument is ideal. In fact, Crystal even speculates that perhaps a new branch of linguistics will be needed to study texting. Such a field would acknowledge texting’s many complexities and draw from fields such as pragmatics, discourse analysis, socio-linguistics, orthography, and others.
Since texting typically occurs on devices with access to multiple forms of media, texting also can cultivate and encourage texters to utilize various modes of communication. For example, instead of relying only on alphabetic letters, texters can include voice messages, images, photographs, music, emoticons, web links, and other types of multimodal elements to make their points. More importantly, determining which type of modality to use given one’s audience and message is an important rhetorical skill. Texting enhances this skill, and given the popularity of cell phones, many students have easy access to platforms that emphasize texting, which enables them to quickly apply lessons learned about rhetoric and communication to their personal, academic, and professional lives.
In fact, several researchers have found positive correlations between texting and people’s literacy skills. For example, Kate Fox finds that texting improves texters’ summarizing skills and their overall ability to write more concisely along with their diplomacy skills. A group of researchers at Coventry University discovered that the more pre-teenage children used text abbreviations, the more likely they were to score higher on reading and vocabulary tests. Conversely, in that same study, students with higher-level spelling and writing skills tended to use the most texting abbreviations. Another researcher at the City University of London found that texters’ spelling or grammar skills were no better or worse than that of non-texters’, suggesting that texting itself doesn’t specifically affect one’s literacy skills. Another group of Finnish researchers concluded that texting’s often informal style allowed texters to engage in more creative uses of language. Other researchers found that texting enhances students’ ability to write collaboratively. Another set of researchers argue that texters use paralinguistics – or additional written or scriptive cues—to clarify their meaning, thus potentially enhancing communication. Or, as Clare Wood, a scholar who studies children’s literacy development and who has been at the forefront of texting research for years, states, “Overall, there is little evidence that ungrammatical texting behavior is linked to grammatical understanding or knowledge of orthographic representations of language in children.”
Texting may even be particularly useful for helping people of various ages specifically improve their writing skills. McWhorter argues that when people think of language, they usually are referring to speech, not writing. Because writing and speech are radically different, the two should be distinguished. However, McWhorter argues that as writing—a far more recent phenomena than speech—advanced, some speech emulated writing, but some writing also emulated speech. That’s where texting first emerged. For McWhorter, texting is a unique hybrid of speech and writing because it is loose and informal, like speech, although texters still rely on the “brute mechanics” of writing to communicate through this type of “fingered speech.” McWhorter points to how texting is changing our conceptions of writing and speech because new linguistic structures are emerging such as LOL or the use of a slash ( / ) to denote what linguists call pragmatic particles. These particles are usually spoken, but with texting, new forms of written communication are used to socially negotiate meaning among texters. Within the context of linguistics and writing studies, this is an important development.
New technologies have consistently threatened old ones, so cries that “texting is killing civilization” are part of a long history of trashing new media. In fact, even writing was despised by philosophers such as Plato in ancient Greece. In the 20th century, when film threatened radio, movies were demonized. When television threatened film, according to film historian Virginia Wright Wexman, the word “television” was forbidden in some studios. And the same backlash is currently directed toward texting, video games, social media, and other forms of digital media.
However, if we consider the National Council of Teachers of English’s definition of 21st-century literacy, we see a notable emphasis on the role technology plays in literacy. Two specific goals stand out: In this century, literate citizens should be able to “develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology” and “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts.” A third goal—“manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information”—challenges the notion that texting distracts us. In the mediaand information-saturated worlds we live in, preventing distractions seems anachronistic; managing them seems the wiser, more contemporary goal. We should consider texting as not replacing formal writing, but instead, as a complex complement to formal writing that allows people to augment their existing writing skills in fresh, complex ways. Instead of perceiving texting as a threat to literacy, we should start understanding texting as an ally. Scholars who study writing and language should investigate more rigorously texting’s many complex dynamics.
Encouraging students to use texting to communicate with each other while working on group projects seems logical. Using examples in class about language usage that relates to texting is relevant to students’ lives. Comparing texting’s conventions to those found in other types of writing is valuable. Asking students to reflect on their texting behaviors will raise their awareness of texting’s strengths and weaknesses. Cultivating within students the notion that texting is one useful medium within a spectrum of various communications media will only help them discern when it’s best to text and when it’s not. In a world rife with alternative discourses and media, embracing the diverse opportunities for communication marks the best path to literacy.
See David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8; Jessica Gross’s TED blog post, “Texting as a ‘Miraculous Thing’: 6 Ways our Generation is Redefining Communication”; a YouTube clip by John McWhorter titled “A Surprising new Language—Texting”; and Lucy Ward’s article in The Guardian, “Texting ‘is no Bar to Literacy’.”
colloquial language, digital literacy, digital rhetoric, linguistics, nonstandard language, orthography, standard language, texting
Christopher Justice is a writer and lecturer at the University of Baltimore and a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. From 2007–2012, he helped establish UB’s University Writing Program and served as its writing program administrator. His research and scholarship focuses on writing theory and non-traditional writing systems such as texting and different forms of animal communication. His writing has appeared in numerous publications and presses. For more information about his work, please visit http://christopherjustice.weebly.com.