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3: Alphabetic Text

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    Alphabetic text refers to the letters and words we use when we communicate in writing. This key concept may seem obvious, but that is because it has been the dominant form of communication in Western culture for centuries, and we tend to take it for granted. Alphabetic text is actually more complicated than we might think. First of all, we tend to forget that alphabetic text is a visual mode, so we must consider the way it looks. It’s also worth noting that our alphabet represents the sounds of our spoken language, which distinguishes it from writing systems that rely on characters that represent ideas and objects (such as Chinese and Japanese).  

    Alphabetic text is just one resource we have for communicating our ideas. That is, we can communicate with image, the sound of our voice, video, animation, or music, among many other modes, and our electronic devices and the internet make it easier than ever before to use these other modes to communicate with a wide audience. Distinguishing among these various resources, and choosing to use one instead of another, becomes one of the many rhetorical choices we make whenever we face a situation when we are trying to communicate with others. Therefore, it’s important to study what makes alphabetic text unique and how it relates to all other modes. 


    History of Alphabetic Text

    Although it might be hard to imagine our world without some form of writing, the fact is that writing evolved (or was invented) relatively late in human history. This is worth remembering because while spoken language is acquired so naturally it feels innate, most people have to actively learn how to write and read.  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Cave drawings in Fele's Cave (Copyright; Phillip Capper via Wikimedia Commons)


    Scott McCloud provides a brief history of the evolution of writing systems in “Show and Tell.” McCloud explains that writing likely evolved out of cave drawings and other instances of pictographic writing, and gradually, the images became increasingly abstract to evolve into writing systems based on a complex system of characters. Our writing system derived from the Greek alphabet, which developed hundreds of years BCE. It wouldn’t begin to be standardized until centuries later, after the invention of moveable type and the printing press in the 15th and 16th centuries CE.  

    The printing press also gave rise to the affordances of the visual nature of alphabetic text. A page of writing used to be an uninterrupted string of letters that relied on the reader, usually reading out loud to other people, to determine where one word or idea ended and the other began. When the printing press made books available to more people, reading became a solitary and silent activity. At the same time, visual conventions were introduced to help people make sense of the alphabetic text on the page. For example, we have capital letters to mark the beginning of a sentence and punctuation that marks the end of the sentence. We also have paragraph breaks that help communicate where subtle shifts in ideas occur. 

    As alphabetic text became standardized, readers grew accustomed to these visual clues; it is likely that after you learned these conventions, you have taken them for granted as both a writer and reader. In fact, many texts are designed so that you don’t really look at the alphabetic text, but rather look through it, straight to the ideas it contains.  

    However, writers today have many options for working with the visual affordances of alphabetic text. From fonts and sizes to colors to the arrangement of chunks of text on a page or screen, we have a lot more choices to make when we use alphabetic text, which requires us to look at this resource in a new way.  


    Alphabetic Text Today 

    Alphabetic text has served as the dominant mode for communication in Western culture for centuries, the mode in which people conduct their most important affairs. Think of the religious documents that spell out how one is to worship, the contracts that determine who owes what to whom, the political treatises that establish laws, and educational texts such as this. Because alphabetic text has been so pervasive, we often aren’t even aware of how it works. 

    We all know that writing happens by arranging words into phrases and sentences that convey meaning, but if we pause long enough to consider what’s involved in that action, it can be fascinating. Each time we put one word after another after another, we are making choices about which words we use, from the countless words available in our language, and each choice excludes all the other words we could have used instead. There are some principles that govern the order in which we have to arrange the words, but even here, our options are overwhelming. The resources available to us when we are working with alphabetic text are virtually limitless. 

    Consider the following headlines and the first paragraphs of articles that appeared on August 10 and 11, 2014, about an incident that dominated the news for several months that year:  

    “Unarmed Black Mo. Teen Shot After Altercation, Police Say.” (CBS News, August 10, 2014) 

    An unarmed 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by police in suburban St. Louis after an altercation that involved two people and an officer, authorities said Sunday while hundreds of protesters demanded answers outside. 

    “Police Say Mike Brown Was Killed After Struggle for Gun in St. Louis Suburb” (New York Times, August 10, 2014)  

    The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager Saturday by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb came after a struggle for the officer’s gun, police officials said Sunday, in an explanation that met with outrage and skepticism in the largely African-American community (Bosman and Fitzsimmons). 

    “Riot Erupts Near St. Louis Over Police Shooting of Teen” (Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2014) 

    Rioting and looting erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, late on Sunday as protests over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer turned violent, law enforcement officials and media reports said. 

    “St. Louis Police: Black Teen Shot in Altercation with Officers” (, August 10, 2014)   

    The chief of the St. Louis County Police says a black teenager fatally shot by officers Saturday was killed during an altercation with authorities (Neuman). 


    In these excerpts, each news organization attempts to describe an event, but the range of choices in language made by these organizations is significant. Notice the various ways that the victim, Michael Brown, was identified:  

    • unarmed black Mo. Teen 

    • unarmed 18-year-old black man 

    • Mike Brown 

    • unarmed black teenager 

    • Teen 

    • Black Teen 

    • a black teenager 


    It is worthwhile to discuss with friends and classmates the implications of referring to Michael Brown as a teen or teenager instead of as a man, for example. Half of these phrases include the detail that he was unarmed, five of them include the detail that he was Black. Why might those differences matter? Most of the news media came to use the name “Michael”; what does the use of “Mike” instead contribute to or change the story? 

    How we use the resources available to us in alphabetic text to represent the people, places, or things involved in events is extremely significant, as is the way we depict the actions. Again, look at the range of choices made: 

    • shot 

    • was shot and killed by police 

    • was killed 

    • fatal shooting … by a police officer 

    You might discuss the difference between identifying the verb as “shoot” or “kill.” Both, of course, are accurate, but they mean different things. Moreover, in none of these examples, is the active voice used. The active voice would read like this: A police officer shot/killed Michael Brown. Instead, nominalizations or passive voice are used, as in this sentence. A nominalization involves writing about an action, typically represented by a verb, and turning it into a noun phrase instead. For example, “fatal shooting” or “the killing” removes the accountability for the action from the event and hides it inside a noun phrase.  

    The passive voice, as in “was killed” or “shot,” distances the actor (the police officer) from the action itself (killing, shooting) by pushing the actor to the end of the sentence or removing the actor altogether. Notice how the first and third example in the bulleted list above doesn’t name the actor at all, whereas some of them name the shooter/killer in the “by-phrase,” so we have “shot by officers,” for example.  

    This brief analysis doesn’t even begin to cover the way the authors of these words drew on the resources of alphabetic text to communicate the meaning of this event. Other questions you might discuss with friends and classmates: What words or phrases are missing from these headlines and paragraphs? Why, for example, do none of them identify the race of the police officer? What is the difference between referring to the response by the citizens of Ferguson as a “riot” or a “protest” and what are the implications of the verb “erupts” in the headline from the Chicago Tribune? The New York Times initially published its story under the headline, “Police Say Mike Brown Was Killed After Struggle for Gun in St. Louis Suburb.” The title was later changed to "Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager." How might this change in title shape your sense of the story being presented by the Times or of priorities or details the Times draws attention to? 


    When we talk about the affordances of the different modes, it is worth remembering the vast array of resources we have available to us each time we put even a few words together using alphabetic text. It’s no wonder, then, why alphabetic text has been the dominant mode in our culture for centuries. However, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuewen, among others, argue that we are witnessing a period in history in which the prominence of alphabetic text is weakening, and we are increasingly relying on image to communicate in our culture (Reading Images 23). The extent to which this is true is up for serious debate, but one basic premise of that debate is the fact that writing and the role of writing are constantly changing and always have been.  

    Change can disturb people. Think of the way people respond to the written conventions used in text messages. A quick Google search (“texting and grammar”) will turn up any number of articles about whether texting and all of the abbreviations, missing capital letters and forms of punctuation, and other short-cuts are negatively affecting the way people write and speak. Do the search yourself and read a few articles. If you look for the words that describe what’s going on, you’ll see that what some people refer to as “evolution” others will refer to as “decline,” and some describe these new conventions as “inventive” or “efficient,” while others refer to them as “lazy” and “ignorant.” Talk with your friends or classmates, and you’ll see that these different arguments circulate even among people of the same generation—it’s not just older people complaining about “kids these days.” 

    Texting may also provide examples of Kress and van Leeuewen’s argument about our increasing reliance on images in everyday communication. Consider this exchange between a teenage son and his mother. He sends a picture of his friends walking up to a McDonald’s with a map of his current location to let his mom know where he is. She can write “OK, but when are you coming home?” and choose from any number of emojis to communicate her perspective on the situation—does she send the worried face? the angry face? or the “I’m cool, just chillin’ with my sunglasses on” face?  

    Perhaps what we see in this exchange is an example of a more nuanced argument than Kress and van Leeuewen’s. John A. Bateman argues that “What we instead find all around us is a far richer range of combinations of different ways of making meanings. Visual depictions commonly include words and so the visual and the verbal are evidently working together. When this is done well, what results is something more than either could achieve alone” (11). Note how the map in the exchange between son and mother would mean nothing without the written names of streets and familiar establishments, or how the written words “OK, but when are you coming home?” can mean very different things depending on the emoji the mom chooses.  

    When you multiply the resources we have available to us when working with alphabetic text alone by the resources we have when we combine it with other modes like image, the capacity we have to communicate with other humans is sometimes overwhelming, but always remarkable in its possibilities, both for communication and for miscommunication. 


    Alphabetic Text and Other Concepts 

    If you consider the range of choices available to you as you work with alphabetic text, you have some sense of the options you have for creating your ethos using this mode. As we demonstrated in the discussion of the Michael Brown headlines and paragraphs, your credibility as an author can be demonstrated—or weakened—depending on which words you choose and in which order you place them. The visual elements of a text can affect your ethos, too. For example, consider the difference between the fonts Comic Sans and Times New Roman, and think about the ethos created by too many exclamation points!!!! Proofreading can also demonstrate your care with alphabetic text, and thus affect your ethos: spelling errors or missing punctuation can negatively affect your credibility.  

    As the texting example illustrates, though, the rules governing spelling and punctuation depend on genre. You might have noticed that the hypothetical mom in that example, who may or may not be a writing teacher, could not bring herself to text “Ok but when r u coming home,” which would have been perfectly acceptable, maybe even preferable, in this particular genre. When conventions that are appropriate in texting appear in other genres like a school essay or job application letter, however, we may accuse authors of being careless with alphabetic text, which also weakens their ethos, their credibility. 

    The discussion above about the relationship between alphabetic text and image indicates that we are not just responsible for these word- and sentence-level decisions, but that we must also consider the visual elements of alphabetic text as well, from choosing font type and size to the use of underlining and bolding to choosing the colors of our alphabetic text. And we must pay careful attention to the arrangement of the chunks of alphabetic text on the page or screen and consider how they are positioned in relation to other modes. The questions in the “Writing with Alphabetic Text” section can guide you through some of the choices you need to make. 

    Alphabetic text allows for a sustained, uninterrupted reading experience. Further, print-based alphabetic text allows audiences to read multiple times at any speed. The reader can also choose to concentrate on chunks of the text, even if those chunks are located on different parts of the page, with only the movement of the eye (rather than alphabetic text scrolling on video or being read aloud). This means that the reader can perform a close reading of the text and easily identify strategies that help to advance the meaning of the text. Readers can examine how individual words (lexicon) and the arrangement of words and phrases (syntax) are used to determine meaning and context. By studying the overall arrangement of the text, readers can also discover how the many parts of the text form a whole. However, readers also cannot ignore how the visual qualities of alphabetic text can enhance or constrain reading. Even simple choices between a particular font (with or without serifs, for instance) or script typeface or indenting or blocking paragraphs can influence the effectiveness of a given text.  

    As readers of many kinds of texts, it is easy for us to see the varied ways we can engage with alphabetic text, but we also know that alphabetic text can create abstractions, confusion, and perplexity. Sometimes this can be pleasurable, as when we are reading a poem, but it can also be frustrating, for instance, when we are trying to follow an argument or explanation. When we compose using alphabetic text, we need to be attentive to how we are guiding our readers to a shared meaning. How can our choices of typeface, words, phrases, and sentences, as well as arrangement help us sustain and advance the intellectual conversations we share in our courses? 


    Writing with Alphabetic Text 

    Although the nature and roles of alphabetic text are constantly changing, it is premature to say that alphabetic text is no longer important. In fact, considering how networked communication potentially enables us to reach a far wider and more diverse audience than ever before, perhaps our written words, and our appropriate and careful use of them, are more important than ever. It is also true, though, that each time we go to communicate with others, we must decide whether alphabetic text is the best choice for a particular rhetorical situation. Then, as you write, and especially after you’ve written and while you revise, ask yourself questions such as these: 


    • Have I chosen the best words in each instance to represent other people, places, things, events, and my own ideas and arguments?  

    • Have I ordered the words in such a way that the meaning I’ve created comes close to what I intend? 

    • Have I taken care with my alphabetic text by learning the conventions expected of me in this situation and editing and proofreading so that I adhere to these conventions as effectively as possible? 

    • Have I used the visual elements of alphabetic text—fonts, bolding,

    • paragraphing, and so on—effectively? 

    • What genre is appropriate or effective for this particular writing project, and how is alphabetic text used (or not used) in this genre? How is its employment effective (or not)? 

    • What other modes can I combine with my alphabetic text here, if appropriate, not just as decoration, but as resources for changing and enhancing my meaning? 

    • How should I arrange the alphabetic text and other modes on the page or screen, so that readers get the experience I hope they will, and so that it is aesthetically pleasing?  

    • Have I considered important principles of design


    Works Cited

    Bateman, John. Text and Image: A Critical Introduction to the Visual/Verbal Divide. Routledge, 2014.

    Bosman, Julie, and Emma G. Fitzsimmons. “Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager.” The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2014, Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager [].

    Capper, Phillip. Cave drawings in Fele's Cave, 24 Nov. 2006. 2006. Wikimedia CommonsCave drawings in Fele's Cave []. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd edition. Routledge, 2006.

    McCloud, Scott. “Show and Tell.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1994.

    Neuman, Scott. “St. Louis Police: Black Teen Shot in Altercation with Officers.” NPR, 10 August 2014, St. Louis Police: Black Teen Shot [].

    “Riot Erupts near St. Louis over Police Shooting of Teen.” Chicago Tribune, 11 August 2014, Riot Erupts [].

    “Unarmed Black Mo. Teen Shot After Altercation, Police Say.” CBS News, 10 August 2014, Unarmed Black Teen Shot [].

    Wikimedia Commons []

    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    "File:Lelepa (Vanuatu) expedition 17, Cave drawings in Fele's Cave, 24 Nov. 2006 - Flickr -

    PhillipC.jpg" by Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

    Alphabetic Text Image Greek Alphabet.docx

    Greek Alphabet


    Source: Wikimedia Commons 

    "Greek Alphabet" by Drdpw is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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