LOL or :*( ? Texting and the English Language

Image courtesy of adamr/

Image courtesy of adamr/

Over twenty-one years since Neil Papworth, a test engineer for Sema Group in the U.K. sent the first text message of “Merry Christmas” to the phone of a friend who was at a party, the debate has been on. Texting, otherwise known as SMS or short message service, has been seen as both scourge and benefit for language development. It just depends on who is sending and receiving in this argument.

The popular form of electronic communication using only 160 characters (including spaces) per message, started out as a European practice when text messages were cheaper to send than making local phone calls. It quickly caught on in the U.S. and soon after, worldwide, with smartphone users texting everything from breezy greetings to marriage proposals.

The sheer numbers indicate just how widespread its use. While it is hard to calculate how many texts have been sent since its inception, according to CTIA The Wireless Association, there were 2.19 trillion texts sent in 2012 in just the U.S. alone. Experian reports that it is the second most common activity a cell phone is used for after talking, although for the younger set (18-24 year olds), it is almost neck in neck with 89% talk and 85% text. This age group is also reported sending, on the average, 2022 texts per month, 67 texts per day.

That same survey conducted by Simmons National Consumer Study found that 48% of adults, ages 18-to-24, feel that texting someone is just as meaningful as a telephone call. Adults, ages 25-to-34, feel only slightly less so at 47%. With this kind of cultural engagement, it is no wonder that educators, linguists, and social scientists have been debating its effect on the English language.

In an essay originally shared at a talk at TED 2013 and later published in, John McWhorter, associate professor of English at Columbia University and author of What Language Is, states that while traditional modes of writing can be slow and sometimes cumbersome, texting is fast and nimble, and can keep up with the speed of conversation. He contends that texting does not pose any real threat to writing because it is actually less like writing and more akin to a spoken language.

John Sutherland, a Lord Northcliff Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, wrote for the Guardian, “Texting is penmanship for illiterates,” and brings to light what educators and linguists are concerned about – the rise of poor spelling, communication laziness, and lack of grammatical form.

In her undergraduate review for St. John Fisher College, Elizabeth Gorney posed that technology has been a huge factor in shaping today’s English. Texting, and other social media technology such as emailing and Facebook, are so commonplace, that their influence is unavoidable in a medium as fluid as language that constantly evolves with culture. In fact, she believes that technology, such as text use, can even aid in making languages easier to follow by moving away from the irregularities that make mastery difficult.

Anne Merritt, for The Telegraph, states texting has become so prevalent among school children, that they are developing proficiency in bilingualism – English and ‘text-speak.’ Experts claim children write more these days than 20 years ago because of all the social media. However, it is in text-speak thereby eroding away at proper language rules.

The debate wages on and twelve years later, texting is firmly entrenched as a mode of communication in our modern societal landscape. Has it permanently damaged literature, grammar, and the English language as we know it? Not necessarily. But this conversational shorthand has definitely made its mark on the way we talk to each other. If you don’t think so, check out “Rise of the Emoticons.” LOL


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype


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