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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Texting, Handwriting, and Language

ďTexting can be detrimental to your professional healthĒ

ďStandards of good writing evolve with changing technologiesĒ

ďCommunication becomes less nuanced with new technologiesĒ

ďEven in the age of texting, handwriting has its placeĒ

Also see artificial intelligence, language, & you.


Seminars & email courses

Texting can be detrimental to your professional health

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Iíd TILII but CT cuz BIL so CWYL.

Texting. Itís quick. Itís easy. And itís here to stay Ė at least until technology comes up with a more efficient means of producing text than fingers on keyboards.

Compared with e-mail, texting is

Quicker. Constant connectivity promotes a culture of "reachability," which encourages users to check for messages more frequently and respond more rapidly.

More discreet. If youíre adept, you can text out of sight Ė below a desk or table or behind a book, purse, or briefcase Ė without breaking eye contact with the person youíre supposed to be listening to or interacting with.

More portable and available. Whereas it would violate social norms to carry a laptop into a theater, sporting event, lecture, live performance, or bathroom stall, handheld devices are easily concealed.

More concise and efficient. Short Message Service (SMS) language is ultra concise, relying heavily on abbreviations, initialisms (in which the letters are pronounced individually, as with LOL for "Laughing Out Loud"), and acronyms (in which the letters are pronounced like words, as with ACORN for "A Completely Obsessive, Really Nutty" person and UPOD for "Under Promise, Over Deliver," though in my experience OPUD is more common).

More direct and candid in tone. Abbreviated, shorthand communication encourages a headlong, straightforward TILII ("Tell It Like It Is") style that values personality and emphasis over subtlety and substance.

More fun. For younger users, texting feels like something they own, a medium they can use to exclude older people.

One the negative side, texting is

More likely to be used at inappropriate times. Because texting is so easy, texters are tempted to fire off a message rather than wait for a more appropriate time to communicate.

More likely to encourage inconsequential communication and self-disclosure. Short, quick exchanges in a social networking environment create a culture of sharing information for the sake of sharing, sometimes to the detriment of the userís professional standing or reputation, especially when, in the words of Lee Rainie (Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project), a message "jumps the wall" and private information becomes public.

More likely to be incomplete and inadequate. Hurried creation of text in severely limited space results in less detail and less carefully developed thought.

More prone to typographical and proofreading errors. Rapid-fire exchanges diminish the likelihood of careful proofreading.

More likely to be incomprehensible or misunderstood. Initialisms and acronyms are not understood by everyone, and sometimes they have more than one meaning, as with STD, which means both "Seal The Deal" and "Sexually Transmitted Disease."

More likely to result in unacceptable style and tone. Informality may cause users to be blunt, undiplomatic, inappropriately casual, and unprofessional in their word choice. Younger users and digital natives may be less sensitive to the various levels of formality required in business communication.

So, as I said, Iíd tell it like it is, but I canít talk because the boss is listening, so Iíll chat with you later.



Seminars & email courses

Standards of good writing evolve with changing technologies

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

The times, they are a changing. These days when I write, my big fat thumbs keep hitting the wrong little keys on this handheld device. How annoying.

And yet how miraculous. I can communicate instantaneously with people around the planet from this granite boulder on the shore of Lake Superior or from this dock in north central Wisconsin or from this car careening down the freeway while other drivers scatter in all directions. (Just kidding, my wife is at the wheel.)

Still, it tries my patience. So being an adaptable Darwinian creature, I alter my approach. I tap the icon for voice recognition, and I spelt out an entire paragraph, and when I say "comma" or "." or even "open quotes" and "close quotes," it knows what I mean (or with this particular device, "she" knows what I mean).

Even so, I have to go back and make corrections, in this case cutting spelt and thumbing in spout, which is what I said, and changing "." to "period." Impressive though imperfect.

But what really gives me pause (to use an outdated but stately expression) Ė what really blows my mind (moving all the way forward to the sixties) Ė what stresses me to the max (hippest style I can muster at the moment) Ė is that this dazzling technology is altering my habits and in subtle, disturbing ways challenging my assumptions about what constitutes good writing.

Especially in my personal, informal correspondence, where Iíve noticed a growing reluctance to go back and make little corrections, such as changing dad to Dad when I use the relationship as a name, or to add the missing hyphen in compound verbs such as to spot-check, or to remove it when it isnít needed, as in to sign-on.

After all, if the goal is to communicate clearly, quickly, and conveniently and these minor departures from standard English donít interfere with that goal, does it matter? Why bother with capital letters, correct spelling, and punctuation as long as youíre meaning is clear.

Didnít you understand the previous sentence despite the use of youíre in place of your and the missing question mark?

One of the best answers Iíve seen is a July 20, 2012, Harvard Business Review blog by Kyle Wiens, who opens his post with this unforgettable line: "If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me."

Why not?

Wiens reasoning (oops, I forgot my apostrophe) boils down to three arguments: Good grammar is linked to credibility ("especially on the internet"), someone who needs "more than 20 years" to learn the fundamentals of language is a slow learner, and people who are good with the details of language are likely to "make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing Ė like stocking shelves or labeling parts." Or as Wiens also points out, writing programming code.

In my writing seminars I take it one step further. Careful writing leads to careful thinking.

So the times, they are a changing . . . but are they?


Seminars & email courses

Communication becomes less nuanced with new technologies

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

"Heading home, pookie. See you soon!"

And with that message, I crossed a line. My lifelong commitment to correct grammar Ė and with it my relentless pursuit of precise communication Ė had been compromised. I knew it would happen, but I thought it would take another year or two. I never thought it would happen so soon.

I had spelled pookie with a lower case p. I had used lower case rather than a capital letter for a proper noun as English grammar requires.

It was a conscious decision. I had deliberately if fleetingly decided not to bother changing the p to P. I knew it was wrong, but I had done it anyway. I had placed expediency above standards, convenience above pride.

I had begun my message innocently enough. I had tapped the mic icon on my handheld device, and I had dictated those fateful six words to my wife.

My device had correctly placed the comma in the first sentence when I said "comma." It had correctly placed the exclamation mark at the end of the second sentence when I said "exclamation mark" even though I had hesitated to use an exclamation mark there as I mulled over the advice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, "Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke," and as I considered Lynn Trussís observation in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, "There is only one thing more mortifying than having an exclamation mark removed by an editor: an exclamation mark added in."

But I had chosen to use the exclamation mark anyway. My choice was merely a peccadillo, a momentary lapse in good taste, a minor departure from a normally disciplined and restrained style, but the lower case letter . . . the lower case letter . . . that was something else.

When I made my life-changing decision not to capitalize the p in pookie, I hadnít fully considered the consequences. In that fleeting moment I had thought, Why bother? Sheíll understand my message despite the error. She might not even notice. Itís not worth the time and trouble to make the correction. Even now as I write this paragraph my face burns with shame, and as I reflect on the implications of my choice a chill runs down my spine.

Hereís what I predict will happen next Ė and soon Ė in this order:

Punctuation will begin to disappear. The first mark to go will be the comma. Rather than writing, "Heading home, pookie," Iíll write "Heading home pookie."

□Abbreviated spellings will become common. Iíll still spell rough with the ugh, but Iíll drop the no-longer pronounced ugh from though and Iíll write nite rather than night.

□Iíll begin using symbols and single letters in place of words, as in r u ok.

And as these changes occur Ė ineluctably and irreversibly Ė something I have possessed nearly from birth will be fundamentally altered. The complexity, the nuance, the beauty, and the mystery of language will be lost to me.



Seminars & email courses

Even in the age of texting, handwriting has its place

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

In response to my column about how texting is changing the way we communicate, Karen writes that she too used to worry that something might be lost:

"Then I came to the conclusion that texting and informal email communications are like conversation. Conversation doesnít allow for first drafts, proofreading, and revisions, so I donít worry if I make a grammar mistake or if my word choice is not perfect. (Of course Iíll never say Ďainítí and Ďme and her went shopping,í etc.) When I text or send a quick informal email, I will sometimes drop commas and abbreviate spellings Ė sometimes by mistake and sometimes on purpose in the interest of time. But with formal emails, I will proofread and revise."

And then Karen offers this reassurance: "ĎThe complexity, the nuance, the beauty, and the mystery of languageí will never be lost in formal writing as long as formal writing exists and we as a society are educated enough to value it."

In response to the same column, Will urges me to "take on those who say that technology has obviated the need for students to learn handwriting."

All right, here goes. Students need to learn handwriting, even in this age of texting and keyboarding, because forming the letters by hand Ė shaping and creating them Ė slows them down, helps them think more clearly, brings them to a more intimate connection with language, makes them feel more committed to their words, and helps them remember what theyíve written.

Hmmm. I think I just lost half my readers with that sentence. Particularly the younger ones. Allow me to elaborate if I may (reverting to my early 1970s style).

I do believe that sensory experience influences the way we think and remember, as Nicholas Carr argues in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Thereís something more real Ė and for many people, more satisfying Ė about the tactile relationship of creating, editing, proofreading, and reading text on paper than encountering it on screen. But . . .

But the mind adapts. When I first learned to compose on the keyboard rather than type over what I had written longhand, I had trouble matching my thoughts to my keystrokes, but soon it felt natural. Iím writing this column now on the keyboard. Creating, revising, and altering my text are far easier this way. Besides, the image Iím creating more closely resembles what the reader will see. After college my son tried using his grandmotherís red Royal Safari typewriter because he thought it changed the way he wrote, but he soon went back to his laptop. (I just googled "Royal Safari" to see if the online images match my memory of the typewriter. They do.)

Still, I maintain something is lost with processed language. Although online communication offers an extraordinary array of resources, aids, and prompts for the creation and transmission of text, I wonder if 100 years from now critics will conclude that the best writers of the 21st century were those who first learned to write longhand and then migrated to online communication.




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