IM shorthand @ school is a habit 2 kick

Abbreviations: Teachers increasingly have to remind students that the lexicon of Internet instant messaging isn't suitable for formal essays.

April 05, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Classes had only been in session a few weeks when eighth-grade English teacher Gayle Sands began to notice the curious shorthand and abbreviations creeping into her pupils' essays.

"The story introduces 2 diff. bus drivers," one girl wrote.

"She thinks she needs to defend the young people b/c she is young," scribbled another pupil.

With three computer-savvy teen-agers of her own, Sands instantly recognized the culprit: instant messaging.

With the casual lexicon of instant messaging, or IMing - where btw replaces by the way, where b4 substitutes for before and where 2 becomes the stand-in for to, two and too - infiltrating students' schoolwork, such mistakes are soaking up nearly as much red ink as the perennial spelling and grammar errors that typically catch teachers' eyes.

"It's not laziness. It's shorthand," said Sands, who teaches at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown. "A lot of the abbreviations they're using are good for note-taking. The trick is to teach them to separate it out from the formal writing in class."

Instant messaging has become the computerized version of passing notes in class. Like an on-screen conference call, kids can plunk down in front of a computer and strike up online conversations with friends who have access to the service.

With the need to type responses as quickly as possible to keep pace with the exchange - they don't want to keep their friends waiting, after all, to find out who's dating whom or what's happening next weekend - a glossary of shorthand has sprung up.

In this world - as with text messaging, which flashes across the tiny screens of cellular phones - capitalization is unnecessary. Punctuation is optional. Common expressions acquire their own acronyms. And words are shortened, compressed and often lose their vowels.

Great becomes gr8. Talk to you later - a common sign-off - is shortened to ttyl. Got to go - another frequent closing expression - becomes gtg. And clever ways of alerting friends that a parent is lurking and might see the exchange have sprung up, including pos for parent over shoulder and pir for parent in room.

`It just became a habit'

Teachers and students say it was inevitable that some of this vocabulary would unconsciously creep into school assignments.

"It just became a habit," said Brittany Williams, 13, whose assignments at Northwest Middle were peppered with IM abbreviations, including b/c in place of because, w/ instead of with and @ as a substitute for at.

"When you're online, you don't think about it," Brittany said. "Then, when you're writing for school, you're paying attention to what you're writing and not how you say it."

Barbara Valle, an English instructor at Dulaney High School in Timonium, agreed that the shorthand becomes second-nature to some students.

"Most of their writing is IMing friends, so it becomes part of their writing," she said. "It's really an attempt to economize by using the shortest method possible."

Valle, who has been teaching for 29 years, remembers a student who not long ago kept writing SA atop her papers.

"I finally figured out that it was essay," she said. "I thought that was hysterical."

Bob Jenkins, who teaches U.S. history and world religions at Hammond High School in Columbia, said most instructors deal with an overabundance of what he calls "IM-ese" in the first two weeks of the school year.

"Most of them know what the rules are. It's just a matter of expediency not to use them," Jenkins said. "Once we show them through our grading practices that that's not the way you write essays in high school, it tends to drop off."

The exception, he said, remains in less formal assignments, such as journal entries or essays in the form of letters to a friend.

Many of those end with a ttyl, a gtg or a bbs (for be back soon), Jenkins said. Others are riddled with b/c for because and ur in place of your and you're. One student even threw in an omg - IM shorthand for oh my God - to convey surprise in an essay assignment.

Creating a stir

About a year ago, a 13-year-old girl at one of Scotland's leading secondary schools created a stir when she turned in an essay written entirely in text-message shorthand.

Her paper began, "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2 go 2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :-@ kds FTF. ILNY, its gr8." (The Sunday Herald in Scotland, which first reported the story, translated the paragraph as, "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place.")

David Crystal, a British professor of linguistics and author of Language and the Internet, said academics have worried before about the detrimental effects of the Internet on students' writing. The first worrisome offenders were e-mail and chat rooms.

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