Malia Green, taking a writing diagnostic test while enrolled in Junior College, came across the following question:
The question was part of Pearson’s MyWritingLab, self-described as “a complete online learning program [that] provides better practice exercises to developing writers.”
I have heard rumor that young people have been adopting shorthand tweet-type language as “standard English,” using it in communications with professors and in their academic papers. The inclusion of this question in Pearson’s test suggests that this may, indeed, be a widespread phenomenon and that young adults may not necessarily know the difference between the English most of their parents grew up with and the English they have encountered in this brave new world.
Despite the fact that each of the answers will make sense to anyone familiar with text-ese, the correct answer on the Pearon’s test is clearly d). So, are the answers a) through c) actually wrong? Who gets to decide what “standard English” is anyway?
The whole thing reminds me of the controversies over African American Vernacular English, better known as “ebonics,” in the 1990s. The idea that some people “talk right” and some people do not is an excellent way to justify prejudice. Perhaps an employer largely chooses not to hire black people, not because they’re black, of course, but because they don’t “talk right.” Is the outcome significantly different? And who decides what “talking right” sounds like anyway? Well, the people who have the power to do so… and they typically side with themselves.
So, is text-ese wrong? Only according to those who are making the rules (and Pearson’s tests). And what do you want to bet that those young people who are taught to differentiate between the kind of English they are allowed to use in texts and the kind they are allowed to use in “proper” communication are class privileged, on average? And disproportionately white, accordingly?
So, who decides the future of English? And will “2” and “u” be words in it, or not?Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Stan — February 2, 2011
I was talking to someone about this a couple of days ago. She began tutoring recently, and noticed that a lot of her students seem to have no sense of what tone to use even in their more formal communications. Instead of "Dear [professor's name]" they write "Hey."
I'd have thought that switching registers would come naturally to third-level students, but apparently not. For many of them, texting seems to have been a principal mode of 'written' interaction; it doesn't even occur to them that they need, by convention, to adopt different terms and forms in different situations.
No one gets to decide what Standard English is (there are four views of it here), though certain organisations would probably like to.
Che — February 2, 2011
I tutored college composition students 4 years ago (and for 4 years before that), and I NEVER saw text-speak in essays. I have friends who are teaching college now, and they see it all the time. It would drive me crazy.
shykate — February 2, 2011
If it does become standard, typographers would have a fit. All the extra kerning that would go into making number-letter-combo words and sentences!
Kristian — February 2, 2011
Right or wrong, "standard English" is probably enforced by the class of people hiring and firing. I agree with Stan above that humans, being dexterously linguistic beings, should practice their ability to be "multilingual".
T — February 2, 2011
** Who gets to decide what “standard English” is anyway? **
It's actually a fairly 'democratic' process since the English-speaking world doesn't have language ministries like France or Germany (How many F's in Schifffahrt? Am I allowed to write "le week-end prochain" in an article for Le Monde?)
What is standard is determined by what spelling and grammar begins to gain currency in the wider "marketplace." This means in publications like newspapers, magazines, non-fiction (i.e., non-colloquial) books, etc. Not in personal communication and speech.
The fact that the British write gaol and tyre, while Americans and Canadians write jail and tire.... that was a gradual process. The spelling of many words is still flexible and have regional/stylistic alternatives. Is an Oxford comma acceptable? What about split infinitives? All flexible!
Will spelling through as thru ever be considered "standard English"? I doubt it -- but it will always be acceptable on store signage and other informal settings.
Eneya — February 2, 2011
I am sorry, but I think there is a huge difference between racism and plain grammar.
We are not talking about vocal langugage and all of the variety.
We are talking about the knowledge what is correct and incorrect grammar and vocabulary.
English is clear and not too complicated language, compared with German, for instance and French (other langguages with the same latin base).
To be critical to people who have basic and higher education, who are not able to make the distinction between situations and appropriate langugage, this is only not tolerating slackness.
Maybe the fact that my country is not that diverce has to do with my opinion, I do not know, but I find it kind of weird to compare racism and expectations for basic understanding of grammar.
One can write/talk however they like in stiuation who are not coloured specifically (everyday lives), but what is the place of that language in school essays, course works and documentation?
When I read books from 19th century I am stunned by the vocabulary. Campared to the modern, 21 century one, it looks much bigger and diverse.
Of course I could be quite wrong, but the external point of view and the view of someone who mainly uses English when reading prose, it is something that is interesting and unsettling at the same time.
“Standard English” and Social Power « The Book of Myths — February 2, 2011
[...] Interesting post on Sociological Images, which is a great blog. [...]
MJS — February 2, 2011
I've heard some crazy things said about my generation (I'm 23), but I find it extremely hard to believe that anyone who's managed to get into college would be stupid enough to use text speech in a formal essay. Presumably anyone at that level of education would have read a book or two and been taught basic composition over the course of education. This kind of thing strikes me as some kind of exaggeration, one of many "technology is making people go crazy" stories I hear.
The Nerd — February 2, 2011
"So, who decides the future of English?" That's a good question. I've had friends say that I shouldn't use ze/hir until they become standard english. I tell them that they're standard for my particular subculture already, and the only reason it isn't standard for everyone is because of the prevailing attitude that it isn't standard. We live in this amazing "everything's a social construct" culture, but somehow language has gained special immunity from that? I call BS.
chitownmama — February 2, 2011
i don't want to burst anyone's sociological analysis bubbles here, but there's actually an entire field called, yes, sociolinguistics, that has covered pretty much every point brought up in this post. if you are interested in things like SAE and AAVE and the sociological factors that affect language, i recommend starting with the work of Bill Labov.
byrde — February 2, 2011
I used to agree with you MJS, until I TA'ed a course where I helped grade a simple paragraph length weekly assignment. This was around 2004-2005 and I was shocked at how many people got docked for not being able to put a sentence (noun verb object) together. We weren't looking for high composition, just basic writing. And that was before texting became as big as it is now (something that seems to have exploded between 2005 and 2008).
I suspect that we're on the cusp of recognizing that we have formal and informal forms of american english in wide use. Once we grasp that maybe we'll start learning at an early age to differentiate when to use what form.
elly — February 2, 2011
If young people don't understand the difference between "text-ese" and standard English, this strongly implies that they're non-readers - for pleasure or information. As I see it, anyone who spends a reasonable amount of her or his time reading books, magazines or even online sources such as web sites or blogs would innately grasp that there's a difference between "official" writing, and the vernacular used for chat, tweets and texting; and respond accordingly.
Is it a sign of "class privilege?" Maybe... but I can't blame employers and educators for being concerned about it. While time and widespread use may ultimately sanction the use of abbreviations like "2" and "u," right now they signify something different. "Text-ese" is currently the realm of LOLCats and Twitter, not plays, novels... or even sociology blogs.
Marc — February 2, 2011
I was entertained to see that comments responding to this, of all posts, are full of grammatical errors and misspellings.
On the issue of using grammar and spelling to discriminate during hiring, I'd ask what you would have employers do? It should be apparent to anyone who's ever eaten in a restaurant or called Bank of America's customer support line that there are better and worse employees, and that companies with the better ones are more successful. The correlation between standard English usage and honesty, competence, and reliability is probably greater than the authors of this blog would like to admit, and it's an incredibly cheap screening device for the employer. Its usage conveys that the speaker recognizes and submits to the necessity of a "gameface" for work, which has a different set of rules than does the schoolyard, the mall, or the bar. It also suggests that a minimal level of academic acheivement exists. This signifies both intelligence and character.
You are correct that Standard English is arbitrary, and is primarily a way to signal that "I am like you", but in this case, that's because "you" are employable as well.
azizi — February 2, 2011
I wonder what the race/ethnicity (with "ethnicity" here meaning Latino)is of those young college students who are reported to be using "text-ese" in their oral conversations with college professors and/or in their written college level assignments. It wouldn't surprise me if most of those students were White. Maybe those students haven't about formally or informally learned about code switching.
Just for the record, many people who speak and write African American English are "bilingual" English speakers. Black Americans are often skilled in code-switching. In other words, we can speak and write African American English informally, and we can speak and write "standard English" in formal situations (as Lisa indicated in her introduction to this post, what is "standard English" is determined by those in power.)
This is a point that some people may need to remember when reading online comments on blogs or comment threads on sites such as YouTube. Just because someone adds some Black stylin to their comments (for instance complimenting a vocalist by writing "Sang it, girl!" (with "sang" meaning to "sing very well") doesn't mean that that commenter doesn't know how to and when to speak or write Standard English.
Sometimes African Americans speak or write "downhome" English just to lend a little Black flava to the mix, or to emphasize our Black solidarity, and/or maybe to just show off a bit because we got it like that.
And also just for the record, the term "Ebonics" isn't now nor was it ever a formally accepted term for African American English (though "African American Vernacular English" was a formally accepted term. among academics.)
Black folks don't go around talking about how we talk "Ebonics". Then again, we also don't use the terms "African American English" or "African American Vernacular English". Terms like those are reserved for forums such as this one.
Nicole — February 2, 2011
Being picky here, but I would say that the examples here are not examples of non-standard English, but examples of variant spelling. Spelling and grammar are quite different matters in English (as opposed to French, for example).
The "SMS language" issue can probably be resolved by a decent spell checker. It is certainly not a dialect like AAVE with its own grammar/pronunciation rules. If college students are having problems dealing spelling and the contexts when certain formulas are allowed, we should be blaming primary and secondary education rather than the technologies that are leading to variant spellings. Of course they're going to have issues if nobody tells them that "u" is a variant spelling of "you" that folks came up with to save space and time when texting on little screens with little keyboards.
Elena — February 2, 2011
FWIW, I'd like to see a comparison of other common modern, literate shorthand abbreviations like, well, FWIW, IMO, IANAL, AFAIK, etc, and how do they compare to both SMS spelling *and* vintage abbreviations like OK, etc, and so on.
Because two centuries ago OK and its siblings were the LOLspeak of the time.
JL — February 2, 2011
Just started reading "our magnificent bastard tongue the untold history of english". Recommend.
chris — February 2, 2011
I'm no prescriptivist, but as a university instructor/advisor/administrator, I feel that part of my job is to embrace those magical teachable moments and gently nudge college kids into real-world adulthood.
In a nutshell:
college graduate wants job
college graduate submits cover letter liberally sprinkled with LOLspeak
application review committee LOLs, discards.
A discussion about the contributions of Labov/Sapir/Whorf/Wolfram and all the rest is fabulous and wonderful in the liberal arts classroom, but those b-school bastards who do the hiring and firing want to see their prospective employees toe the linguistic line.
Katy — February 2, 2011
More often than not, I have found myself writing far more formal emails that some of my professors! Maybe I'm just slightly too old for this phenomenon (24), or maybe the simple fact that I have never had a phone with text messaging makes this seem so obvious.
Then again, I've been using AIM since it first started, and the only short-cut I ever use when typing is ignoring capitalization. So perhaps my teachers just trained me far too well.
Michael Restivo — February 2, 2011
FWIW, option (C) is clearly incorrect since the 'T' is redundant ("l-eight-t-r")
Chlorine — February 2, 2011
Just saying, everyone I know uses proper English spelling and grammar even in text messages, even if it's a little harder or whatever. It takes less time to type it properly than it does to try and decode a string of random letters and numbers into a sentence.
In my personal experience (and I know this does not necessarily make it true everywhere), this sort of MEETUL8TR thing is something people seem to do in middle school and entirely grow out of by college, and would never think of using it in a proper essay, or even in any context other than parody.
Sucaji — February 2, 2011
It's weird how "SMS language" has impacted different languages in different ways. For example, my friend in Japan once told me that there's articles bemoaning the fact that people are forgetting how to write out their kanji, as cellphones/computers will "fill in" the kanji if you type in the correct kana* in the correct context.
*Kana are the two sets of phonetic characters used in Japanese, hiragana and katakana (used mostly for words borrowed from other languages). For those unfamiliar with how this works, you type out a word's phonetic characters like so: wa = わ (this is hiragana). Then, after you get the ones you want, you can hit the space bar (not sure the key on cellphones) until you get the correct kanji. watashi -> わたし -> 私. You can also type out a whole sentence/phrase and it'll fill in the kanji in (usually) the correct spots: それはわたしのすきなうた！-> それは私の好きな歌！(sore ha watashi no suki na uta = "That's my favorite song!"). These are simple characters, but with more complex ones, she says that people are forgetting how to write them. Though they can read them just fine.
Kinda similar, though it doesn't usually impact their how they type up anything. It shows in hand-written papers and letters, though.
This is a bit tl;dr, isn't it? (笑).
Alura — February 2, 2011
No, it's not too long, didn't read :) Although, to my understanding Kanji is a such an extensive set of characters that many Japanese don't know more than a few used regularly. I had friends from Japan bring their fashion magazines and even some manga over (lots of fun to look through), and I'd ask them to translate some of the ads, but they'd get stuck on some of the Kanji in places. I guess I can't blame people for using their cell phones to help find the correct symbol. I mean, I DO rely on the auto-check on my computer to help me catch typos - is it close to that?
cyffermoon — February 2, 2011
I realize this is completely off of our mainstream topics, but what annoys me is the phrasing of this question. As someone who teaches first year courses in community college, I have found the My___Lab questions provided by Pearson to be superficial. They often assess discrete bits of knowledge, are phrased poorly, or both. There's not much to think about either. Basically, this question assesses whether you're someone who is familiar with the concept of so-called "standard" English, or you're not. Perhaps I am overly critical. But I have found that in my content area, Pearson Lab questions don't really assess what I would consider to be useful knowledge.
Dvd Avins — February 2, 2011
There's nothing wrong with a variety of communities speaking different vernaculars. But having a common standard that everyone is expected to learn and that changes more slowly than vernaculars often do is what allows everyone from diverse sub-cultures to work together.
Yes, I'm advantaged in that the English I learned at home and from young childhood peers is very close to what is considered standard. Very close, but not identical. I think everyone has at least some idiosyncrasies in their childhood speech, about which they must make a conscious effort to learn when such usage is appropriate and when it is not. At least they must make some effort if they wish to participate in the full society as much as they can.
It is indeed unfortunate that in most any country and with most any language, those who are already otherwise disadvantaged are usually the ones whose childhood speech differs most from the standard. But that does not remove the value of a, for want of a better term, vernacula franca.
Owly — February 2, 2011
My informal speech contains profanity, idioms, and improper grammar. I would NEVER speak or write informally to a stranger. Using informal language seems overly familiar, which can be seen as disrespectful. This seems more like me: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1047
I agree that college students should know better than to essentially text their assignments or emails. Don't all universities require a basic English proficiency test or essays for applicants? If they can't be bothered to proof-read then perhaps they have a bigger problem than muscle memory. I can't believe that even the most mediocre students don't notice when they write "2" instead of "too." Common mistakes like you're/your are sometimes understandable, especially because spell-check won't catch them.
Oddly enough, I've had (science) professors and TAs "correct" my sentences when I use commas properly. I never argue though, there's really no point. I don't even bother anymore. Being a science student has negatively affected my grammar, as you can probably tell from my post.
Do any of the professors or TAs here notice this kind of language in hand-written assignments? I hope not.
Sadie — February 2, 2011
The standard (in standard English) exists for a reason. Can you imagine the chaos that would result if everyone just started spelling things however they wanted? Communication would cease to be effective, at the very least.
Leave standard English alone. "Texty" does not belong in academic institutions or publications.
I demand that my students use proper conventions in their writing and oral communications. Learning to use "standard English" is just as important as learning financial literacy, mathematics, how to drive or the laws of physics. If that's "racist", well then, I guess I have to live with that. I would rather that my students have the tools and knowledge to help them know when and how to use appropriate language conventions.
Syd — February 2, 2011
There is an enormous difference between slang specific to an ethnic group or particular location, and written formal English. People speak however they want in informal situations, and that has no bearing on their intelligence (or, probably more accurately, level of education). Someone who chooses any answer but D IS NOT, under any circumstances, academically prepared for college-level work. It doesn't matter if they text like that; no one cares. But academic work has a different function and audience that a text message or spoken word, and to compare someone trying to write a college-level research paper in textspeak to someone using 'AAVE' while speaking during day-to-day life is just obtuse (and kind of offensive). One big thing? Text speak is not standardized, and people from different age groups, racial/ethnic groups, nationalities, classes, and geographic location. My mother (who grades papers) would understand option A, because she has been around through all the evolution of texting, and shortening 'you' to 'u' makes a kind of direct sense to her. However, the demographic she grades papers for is not the same demographic that she fits into. If she said 'ok, great, text speak is allowed,' expecting people to shorten 'you' to 'u' she might get a sentence reading 'i Pr()Mi$3 2 m337 u l8r' and she would have no idea what that meant. The work of college students is expected to be legible to anyone who might be grading the paper, including people who don't know how to use cell phones and thus don't text, or people who do not speak English as a first language and therefore are not necessarily up on whatever an 18 year old uses as slang or thinks looks 'neat.' Those problems flat out don't arise when two people in an ethnic group who understand the same slang are speaking to each other, and they can't be compared, SORRY.
Susan — February 2, 2011
If you ever get the chance, watch an absolutely fascinating mini series called The Adventure of English. It chronicles the English language from it's roots to modern day, and pretty much, for as long as there's been English there have been people arguing over what is and is not proper English. In fact a lot of the words we don't even think twice about today have had people in a tissy and trying to ban them at one time or another.
Squee — February 3, 2011
If non-professionals write "auf deine Altentage" (German for "in your old days") it is considered grammatical wrong, because in standard German the correct version is "auf deine alten Tage".
If a professional author writes "auf deine Altentage noch zur free=wohlen Anarchistin geworden" (German for "have become a frivolous anarchist in your old days") it is considered a play with words, it is called a work of art, although it is written with mistakes (correct: "auf deine alten Tage noch zur frivolen Anarchistin geworden")*.
Why is one usage acceptable and the other not at the moment?
One thing I remember from my english class was that Shakespeare "invented" several new words in his plays (I use the term "invented" loosely.). And what? Were these words just accepted as new parts of the vocabulary because a famous author used them? Were there people against using certain words, phrases? Certainly.
However, we still use many shakespearian words now. And why? Because language is not written in stone. It changes, sometimes rapidly, some words prevail, some rules become obsolete. Some words, phrases are used by famous people and because of that others will use them too (perhaps they think it will make them famous too). New words will be invented, old ones will be dropped, meaning will change. Some usage is acceptable in certain environments, in others not. But if a word or phrase or spelling becomes "popular" enough, it will eventually become standard.
If someone cannot speak formaly, it is just because they have not yet learned the language called "formal english". Saying that they are "stupid using textspeech in an formal essay" is as rude as saying that someone who never learnt how to drive a car is stupid for not beeing able to drive in a straight line.
Language does not stand still, it moves, and what now is considered informal and unacceptable in a formal environment, might be considered normal in a couple of years, because formal English changes as much as informal English.
In my opinion there is nothing wrong with writing "tl;dr" instead of "The paragraph, excerpt, whatever was too long and I didn't read it". It is just a different way of saying the same thing in different "languages" and in, at the moment, different environments.
We will not loose the richness of our respective languages by using different forms of expressions. We just have to make sure first that we speak the same language when communicating with others and we will have no problems.
* The examples are from the book "Die Stille" by R. Jirgl. The whole book is written in grammatical incorrect standard German. The author, for example, uses the digit "1" ("ein" or "eins" in German, "one" in English) as replacement for every word that uses "ein" or "eins". So he actually uses one of the replacement technique that is used in textese (e.g. l8er). He also uses punctuation quite... freely (e.g. "?Hättest du=Anihrerstelle ?nicht weinen müssen." -> translation: "?Would you=Inherplace ?not have cried.").
Samantha C — February 3, 2011
also, reading over the comments again, I'm curious what the attitude is on abbreviations vs. new spellings. In my head, "btw" for "by the way" is just a nice quick way to get something across the same way as I might use "asap" for "as soon as possible". "tl;dr" standing for "too long; didn't read" is a little more internet-specific but about the same rule. But things like "l8er" for "later" ad "u r" for "you are" rub me the wrong way and I'm not entirely sure why. Why does it feel more acceptable to use the first letter of a string of words, but not to shorten full words to one letter?
SociologicalMe — February 3, 2011
I teach at an HBCU- I'm not sure how that affects this dynamic but it seemed worth mentioning. I've had students include texting abbreviations in messages to me and formal papers out of laziness, for sure. But I'm also quite sure that the majority of them don't understand that we (adults/professors/employers) consider it to be disrespectful or to be showing too high a degree of familiarity.
My students are very carefully tuned in to issues of respect- I have given students permission to call me by my first name and had them refuse because they personally believed it was disrespectful. It's just not part of their personal social worlds to consider text speech and poor grammar to be disrespectful.
I've had great success with pointing out to them, in very direct terms, that certain things are disrespectful. For instance, I told them it's a form of disrespect to not spell check their papers (spell check takes just a minute or two, so not spell checking sends me a message that my class isn't worth two minutes of your time). The lazy ones will still be lazy, but my sense is that there's a lot more ignorance than stupidity involved in these types of errors.
Niki — February 3, 2011
"... young adults may not necessarily know the difference between the English most of their parents grew up with and the English they have encountered in this brave new world."
You know, I think this is pretty insulting to young adults. I would bet a lot of money that the majority of young adults and teenagers today would look at that question and answer "d" without even the slightest doubt. It's one thing to choose to write in text-speak because it's easier, faster, or even just habitual, but that doesn't mean 19-year-olds today don't actually understand the difference between "I'll see you at the show" and "ill c u @ the show."
The issue is one of formality, with some students not seeing the need to adopt a certain sophistication when they're emailing a professor. It's a generation gap in how one addresses one's authority figures, perhaps. It's not one of mistaking "omg wtf r u even saying" with grammatically correct English.
Tom — February 4, 2011
The English language naturally evolves, but this recent explosion of text language in the education system is more like a dangerous mutation. A devolution happening so rapidly that the effect is akin to a metastisized cancer threatening any real literary culture from surviving into the future.
It's a sign of simple thinking, and often of obstinate, obnoxious behavior. Students in school simply refuse to become educated. These are our children, and they're learning nothing to prepare themselves for the workplace.
Andrew — February 5, 2011
For the record, this is the post which caused me to unsubscribe from Sociological Images in my google reader. It was knee-jerk, glib and not well thought out.
1) Standard English is the kind of English needed for writing college papers, memos at work, or other formal communication.
2) The question is simply asking the student to *identify* which sentence is written in that kind of English.
3) If students in school aren't clued in to what kind of English employers and many college professors will demand (and judge them on), their educational and employment chances diminish.
4) Who decides? Organizations like the MLA and the copy desks of major newspapers. All in all, it's a relatively good system. Academics and practitioners of print journalism are the people who arbitrate disputes about formal usage. Works pretty well, if you ask me.
Amwilson — January 9, 2012
My name is Andrea Wilson and I think that the English language should be spoken and read not in the test-ese way.
Rick Flint — May 25, 2023
I'd say that even though the language is constantly evolving, there are still some standards. Even though when you're talking to a native speaker, you may see an interesting language construct or something like that, and that's fine, but when it comes to formal language, there are rules. Thankfully, this website helped me understand that, and now I don't have any struggles with that.