This 2 shall pass

Editorial Notebook

April 17, 2004|By Jean E. Thompson

REMEMBER the dire predictions? Computers would hasten the death of letter writing. Relationships would suffer as loners sat nose to screen in bland, virtual interaction. Real emotions would be replaced by smileys.

The doomsayers were wrong. A century ago, the telephone dealt a near-fatal blow to letter writing; if anything, newer, faster technologies are fueling a renaissance of correspondence. By industry estimates in March, there were about 79 million active users of instant messaging at the major Internet services. And the next wave is coming: In January, the American Dialect Society listed text - "verb; to send a text message" - among its nominees for most useful new words coloring the nation's lexicon.

To borrow from Mark Twain: Reports of the demise of civilized communication have been greatly exaggerated.

Let's look at instant messaging. Since its debut in 1996, school teachers and college professors have been complaining about the abbreviations and acronyms creeping into student compositions. But if "2 B or not 2 B" appears in an essay on Hamlet, don't kill the messenger. Call it a poor habit, laziness or rebellion, and fault schools in general for failing to address computer-savvy students' developing multilingualism.

"This is an English teacher's dream," says Leila Christenbury, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English. "Students are amazingly literate in ways that are sometimes hard to recognize. These kids are using writing to communicate about something they care about to an audience they care about. We can capitalize on it and build on it."

Of course, that includes teaching them that messaging shorthand flunks the test of appropriateness for schoolwork. Lucky is the teen who learns early to write for academic and business audiences; note that next year, the SAT and ACT will include writing tests.

Luckier still is the teen who is taught that IM chatter has a place on the continuum of writing's evolution. It's not that different from the language of their great-grandparents' telegrams. Paying by the character or word prompted grand economizing and wit. Here's a journalism saw from that era:

"Unnews, good news" (no news is good news), the reporter cabled to his editor.

"Unnews unjob" (no news, no job), the editor replied.

By contrast, the speed and the size of the message window influence the more ephemeral and private instant message (average length: 5.4 words), says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University. Most adults who are IMing don't encode as much as teens, who like to insinuate their separateness from the rest of society. A recent dissection of college students' IM text found relatively few acronyms (only 90 of 11,700 words, with LOL - laugh out loud - being most common), 171 spelling errors (mostly forgotten apostrophes) and 49 typographic symbols (mostly smileys).

Word-processing software is having a more profound impact on writing than instant messaging, she says: "We have, I would suggest, become a nation of typists," learning to keyboard well before learning cursive writing. Resulting trends include briefer, syntactically simpler text, neglectfulness of some writing tasks, and dependence on software that fixes typos and inserts punctuation. Also, in the Internet universe of URLs, where words couple like train cars, we're not learning which ones are actual compound words.

Proper attention to the teaching of writing can correct for most of these. So without hesitation, we can predict that writing will endure as a lively and social art. But the future looks dim for the apostrophe.

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