Meaningful communication is fast becoming a thing of the past. Sensible and mature writing is even harder to come by. As Ernest Hemingway said, there is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.
In countries where English in the native language, one would expect college students to be brilliant essay writers. But there appears to be an alarming trend of passing the buck to professional organizations with terse instructions to “write my essay.”
However, the problem of substandard writing begins way before college. A Pew Research survey in the recent past, that focused writing habits among US middle and high school students, discovered that digital technologies, like the Internet, texting and social media, lead to bad habits like using informal language in formal writing and plagiarizing. The survey also found that students who engage in texting, struggle to read lengthy publications and to form complex arguments.
The Librarian of Congress Emeritus, James Hadley Billington, recently commented that electronic communications by young Americans might be harming “the basic unit of human thought – the sentence.” A large number of educators and children’s advocates are concerned that the quality of young people’s writing is being consistently eroded by the careless spelling, sloppy grammar and punctuation and acronyms used in electronic communication.
In the midst of these concerns, the Pew Internet & American Life Project and National Commission on Writing conducted a national telephone survey to understand how teens and their parents viewed the quality of their writing in school and otherwise. The survey found that 60% of teenagers did not consider text messages as real writing, even though they spent a significant amount of time daily, in composing them. It was also a concerning point that 50% of the teens said their sloppy texting habits were spilling into their school projects, while 38% said they used text shortcuts in school writing assignments. On the other hand. 86% of teens believed good writing is important to a successful life.
Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, John McWhorter said, “People have always spoken differently from how they write, and texting is actually talking with your fingers.” He believes that texting is developing its own unique type of grammar. He says, “Take LOL. It doesn’t actually mean “laughing out loud” in a literal sense anymore. LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing.” It has become grammar among texters, conveying an attitude more than a literal meaning.
What is more, the International Smartphone Mobility Report by mobile data tracking firm Infomate, shows that Smartphone users in the US are sending and receiving five times more texts than phone calls each day. As a whole, Americans spend about 26 minutes a day texting and about six minutes a day on voice calls.
Such informal communication on mobile phones and the Internet is known as “Netspeak” or “Chatspeak”. It denotes a process of shortening words and replacing letters with different letters or symbols to make the typing process easier, and has no proper grammar and punctuation. When used heavily, it sounds almost insane, but young people use it anyway, for convenience.
Former CEO of Dictionary.com, Shravan Goli, said, “I think it makes sense for these social conversations to be lightweight or light-hearted in terms of the syntax. But ultimately, in the world of business and in the world they will live in, in terms of their jobs and professional lives, students will need good, solid reading and writing skills. I’m a little worried about where we are in America with literacy levels dropping. Are these [electronic devices] helping us, or making it worse? I think they may be going the other way and making it worse.”
Attorney-at-Law, Lindsey Gustafson, observed that students who have gotten used to the brevity required by texting, find it difficult to write in detail or at any significant length, even when it is required. She speaks of a study where students had to describe a picture or a situation, and the ones who regularly texted wrote significantly less than those who were not in the habit of texting regularly.
Ms Gustafson speaks of another study done in 2011, which found that college-aged students who engaged in frequent texting, were less able to absorb new vocabulary, when compared to students frequently exposed to books and magazines. Those who read more absorbed more new words and showed flexibility in use of language.
A high school teacher in Florence, South Carolina, Ms Dorlea Rikard said about the 11th graders she taught, “They slip into the informal voice often, and that’s really a tightrope because you want them to find their own voice, but the writing must be appropriate. I’ve realized they very often write the way they speak and they speak the way they text. And yes, I’ve had a few students turn in papers with numbers instead of words and letters used inappropriately. It’s definitely the texting influence.”
The lackadaisical style of texting that pervades middle and high school writing automatically spills over to college writing and beyond. The pursuit of convenience and ease appears to be taking an unfortunate toll on good writing.
However, life skills involve the ability to write with clarity and communicate with maturity. Making it too simple through informality, more often than not, diminishes, even nullifies the quality of the work.
As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”