Friday, July 27, 2012

Teens and Texting and Grammar

I'm just one man, one linguist, impotently shouting into the vast mediascape, "PLEASE POPULAR MEDIA! PLEASE DON'T RUN WITH THE TEEN TEXTING GRAMMAR STORY!"

There is a paper out in New Media and Society called Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills. If you are a linguist, and you winced at the title, I have to warn you, you're not done wincing yet.

Is the key problem that the authors collected data on text messaging behaviors from self reports? No.

Is the key problem that the authors did not directly assess whether or not the teens in the study used "techspeak"? No. (Let's set aside the fact that high volumes of txtspeak are increasingly associated with out of touch adults).

Is the key problem that the authors didn't include any figures plotting the relationship between any of their measures? No.

Is the key problem that the authors included no control group of teens who don't text, or adults who adopted texting late in life? No.

The key problem is that the authors appear to have no idea what grammar or language are. I quote:
Similar to synchronous online communications such as instant messaging, the speed, ease, and brevity of text messaging have created a perfect platform for adapting the English language to better suit attributes of the technology. This has led to an evolution in grammar, the basis of which we shall call ‘techspeak.’ This language differs from English in that it takes normal English words and modifies them [...]
The depth of misunderstanding and naiveté present in this quote about the relationship between actual language and grammar and the way we write is equivalent to thinking that the sun revolves around the Earth, and that stars are bright dots on a large dome in the sky. Mind you, the Earth-centric, skydome model of the universe is a perfectly reasonable one until you are exposed to the most basic, rudimentary scientific understanding of how the world works.

The authors of this paper appear not to have been exposed to the most basic, rudimentary scientific understanding about how language and grammar work.

From Appendix A of the paper, I present to you the 20 point "grammar" assessment used in the study.
  1. There (is, are) two ways to make enemies.
  2. One of the men forgot to bring (his, their) tools.
  3. Gail and Sue (make, makes) friends easily.
  4. The coach thought he had (tore, teared, torn) a ligament.
  5. During the flood, we (dranked, drank, drunk, drunked) bottled water.
  6. The boy called for help, and I (swum, have swam, swam) out to him.
  7. Fortunately, Jim’s name was (accepted, excepted) from the roster of those who would have to clean bathrooms because he was supposed to go downtown to (accept, except) a reward for the German Club.
  8. I don’t know how I could (lose, loose) such a big dress. It is so large that it is (lose, loose) on me when I wear it!
  9. The man around the corner from the sandlots (come, comes) to our meetings.
  10. The man and his little girls (was, were) not injured in the accident.
  11. The pictures in this new magazine (shows, show) the rugged beauty of the West.
  12. The orders from that company (is, are) on your desk there.
  13. The (boys, boys’, boy’s, boys’s) hats were lost in the water because they were careless in not tying them to the side of the boat.
  14. (Its, It’s, Its’) an honor to accept the awards certificates and medals presented to the club.
  15. Worried, and frayed, the old man paced the floor waiting for his daughter. (Correct/Incorrect)
  16. The boy yelled, ‘Please help me’! (Correct/Incorrect)
  17. She got out of the car, waved hello, and walked into the house. (Correct/Incorrect)
  18. When Suzie arrived at the dance, no one else was there. (Correct/Incorrect)
  19. Dad and I enjoyed our trip to new york city. (Correct/Incorrect)
  20. The boy’s mother picked him up from school. (Correct/Incorrect)
To quote what it was the authors were trying to assess:
The first portion of the assessment consisted of 16 questions designed to test the student’s grasp of verb/noun agreement, use of correct tense, homophones, possessives, and apostrophes. [...] The second portion of the assessment asked participants to indicate whether or not a sentence was correct, such as ‘The boy yelled, “Please help me”!’ (Correct/ Incorrect). This portion tested the student’s understanding of comma usage, punctuation, and capitalization.
Virtually none of these points (homophones, apostrophes, comma usage, punctuation and capitalization) fall under the purview of what is scientifically understood to be "grammar". Arnold Zwicky has suggested the term "garmmra" for such things. Punctuation, comma rules, spelling conventions, etc. are all only arbitrary decisions settled upon a long time ago, and have nothing, nothing to do with human language. You could, by fiat, swap periods and commas (like many cultures do with their numeral systems), insist that sentence initial adverbs be followed by a semicolon, and decide to revert back to the symbols <þ> and <ð> to spell the sounds we currently both spell with <th>, and you know how many things that would change about English grammar? Zero things.

The remaining points of assessment could be considered to be well within the domain of grammar (tense and subject/verb agreement), except authors chose really poor, very variable items for the evaluation. The very first item involves verbal agreement with an expletive subject, and the rest involve cases of coordination, and agreement attraction! These are items which really lie on the outside edges of linguistic processing abilities, and there is no way that they could serve as reliable measures of fluency and grammatical competence. Search the work of any good writer, and I'm sure you'll find examples of both kinds of usage.

And then there's the second item: "One of the men forgot to bring (his, their) tools." Both possibilites are acceptable English, and have been for a long time.

The most depressing thing about this grammar assessment is where the researchers say they got it.
This assessment was adapted from a ninth-grade grammar review test.
I'm reminded of a piece I read called For Ebonics, the New Milennium Is Pretty Much Like the Old One, which said: "This suggests to me a catastrophic failure of the public school 'language arts' curriculum: people spend years in various language arts classes and leave with the same 19th-century folk notions that they started with."

So what have these authors actually found? Well, maybe it's the case that the more people who write in a broader range of contexts for a broader range of purposes, the more the arbitrary, conventionalized aspects of the writing system of English will undergo natural drift. What effect with this have on English grammar, as it is represented in the minds of every day English users? Probably just as much as the current writing system does: a minimal one.

And what about my plea to the popular media? Even if someone of note finds this post and reads it, I already know that it won't matter at all. Per my commentary on the coverage on vocal fry, no one is going to report on this piece because they care about science or facts. This research fits snugly into pre-existing biases about young people and the general decline of society, and frankly, these biases seem to have more to do with why these researchers did the study in the first place than science or facts. And there's is no way that something so trivial as a bunch of experts on language and grammar are about to derail this train of garbage and nonsense.

UPDATE! There is, in fact, actual paper on the topic of Instant Messaging and Grammar by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis from 2008 called "Linguistic Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language." Remember hearing about that in the news? Here's selections from their conclusions.
In a million and a half words of IM discourse among 71 teenagers, the use of short forms, abbreviations, and emotional language is infinitesimally small, less than 3% of the data.
Our foray into the IM environment through quantitative sociolinguistic analysis, encompassing four areas of grammar and over 20,000 individual examples, reveals that IM is firmly rooted in the model of the extant language,reflecting the same structured heterogeneity (variation) and the same dynamic, ongoing processes of linguistic change that are currently under way in the speech community in which the teenagers live.

UPDATE! See also Enregistering internet language by Lauren Squires (2010)


  1. This is very well said. I find that quite often in the business communication literature that people make claims about language and language use and have absolutely no clue about linguistics. (I'll scoop this post into my account at Lingua Digitalis)

  2. You might like this one, too:

  3. "And then there's the second item: "One of the men forgot to bring (his,
    their) tools." Both possibilites are acceptable English, and have been for a long time.

    And not even just because "their" can be used with a singular antecedent. If three carpenters are meeting at a work site, two of whom are coming from a meeting and the third of whom is coming from their office where the company's tools are kept, then it's the third man who's supposed to bring the men's tools, in which case you'd report that "One of the men forgot to bring their tools".

    The test they adapted from seems to be the one at , and wow am I underwhelmed by it. When they ask students to "put an X over the [object] of the preposition" in "1. Sarah is a nurse for the
    large hospital on Medical Row.", are they expecting an X over "hospital" or "the large hospital on Medical Row" for the object of "for"? They ask for the right verb in "(Were, Was) neither of
    the twins in the Easter Parade?"--but even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage throws up its metaphorical hands and says "oh, whatever" when it comes to agreement with "neither". As for the last set of "correct/incorrect" questions, the original test actually gives them with no punctuation and asks the student to punctuate it, and to be honest I'm not even entirely sure what I'd do with "Worried, and frayed, the old man paced the floor waiting for his daughter". (I don't think I'd punctuate it that way, but I'm not wholly convinced it's wrong.)

    The real point being: thanks for writing this, so that my mother could link to it when she asked me "what do you think about this texting-hurts-grammar news article?". You've saved me the trouble of having to write it all out myself. (I told her I taught you well, though really any pride I take in that will have to wait for the "oh noes texting hurts students' understanding of conversational implicatures!" news stories.)

  4. The Los Angeles Times didn't heed your wish. Yesterday, they published "YSK, teens 2 fluent in TXT",0,1365582.story

    According to them, the "Worried, and frayed" sentence is incorrect. Because "frayed" should be "afraid." IKYN.

    Cingal and Sundar published their 20 (or 22, depending on how you count) questions as an appendix, but they didn't publish the key they used to grade the quiz.


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