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U nEd nU DXNRE or the Gr8 decline of Eng grammar

The 13-year-old girl submitted the following essay to a teacher in a state secondary school in the west of Scotland and explained that she found it “easier than standard English”:

My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.

Translation: 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.

Text messaging, or SMS (short message service), has turned into a new mobile phone language and has rapidly become one of Britain’s favourite pastimes. As the keypad of a mobile phone is difficult to navigate, text message groupies, mostly children, have developed a shorthand to make life a bit easier.

But their English teachers don’t like it:

There must be rigorous efforts from all quarters of the education system to stamp out the use of texting as a form of written language so far as English study is concerned.

There has been a trend in recent years to emphasise spoken English. Pupils think orally and write phonetically. You would be shocked at the numbers of senior secondary pupils who cannot distinguish between their and there. The problem is that there is a feeling in some schools that pupils’ freedom of expression should not be inhibited.

However, the decline in literacy has probably more to do with teachers being ‘confused’ about how to teach reading. Another reason why many seven-year-olds cannot write properly is because their teachers do not know enough grammar to teach it effectively.

At the heart of the problem was the education strategy’s “ambiguous guidance” on phonics – a teaching method where children learn how the sounds of words are written instead of trying to memorise their shape. Brian Micklethwait has dealt with this topic on Samizdata.net here and here and I am sure the debate continues on Brian’s education blog. So go and read, if interested. I will just leave you with this txt:

If u wan2 undRst& tXt m$ges thN IMO u nEd a SMS DXNRE or no1 will think ur c%l. nuf Z.

13 comments to U nEd nU DXNRE or the Gr8 decline of Eng grammar

  • Gabriel: I love it, gr8 posting. I have commented at a little more length over at Brian’s Education Blog, to which you have kindly linked also. Thanks. I look forward very much to any further comments here, and have told my readers to look out for them.

  • Quite apart from children, there seem to be quite a few college-educated adults who cannot distinguish between /their/ and /there/, or /imply/ and /infer/. Even New Scientist editors sometimes print /whose/ when they mean /who’s/, or /it’s/ when they mean /its/.

    But if teachers can get help brushing up their English I don’t see too much of a problem long-term. The newest and best mobile phones now have software to guess the full word you are keying in, so that texting fully-spelt English can be as quick as, or even quicker than, SMS-speak. Within 3 or 4 years, children who still use these abbreviations throughout will look as outdated as ageing hippies, and will be shunned by their gadget-conscious peers.

    So there are two problems.

    Problem 1, shaky standards among schoolteachers, is present but not urgently worsening. It certainly needs to be dealt with, but the sky is not falling in. Problem 2, mobile-phone English, looks urgent right now, but is about to pretty much disappear of its own accord.

  • It is worth observing that this shorthand language was not so much invented by people sending SMS messages as it was coopted from the instant messaging world. Many of these abbreviations (particularly the convention of replacing letters with numbers with a similar sound) were being widely used on Internet Relay Chat (and sometimes on Usenet) ten to fifteen years ago. Since then they have migrated to other messaging systems and onto phones. I am fairly sure that in most instances it genuinely is migration rather than separate invention because (a) the abbreviated languages used seem much too close to each other to have been invented separately and (b) the early adopters in all these cases were usually the same groups of technophiles. It would be worth actually trying to trace this, I think.


  • Interesting – how would we check that? Could tell us a lot…

  • Interesting – how would we check that? Could tell us a lot…

  • Devilbunny

    Didn’t early texting (in addition to the inconvenient entry method) feature a per-byte charge? In any case, the small screen provides maximum incentive to shrink messages, while IM or IRC abbreviations were usually for convenience (AFK, BRB, TTYL, etc.)

  • Another sign of decline: “would of” instead of “would’ve”.

    We live in a world where people think the Definite Article is a DJ.

  • I think on IRC the fact that it was a real time medium was also an incentive to shrink messages, because people wanted to respond as quickly as possible. Certainly the “Gr8” type abbreviation was common, as was the dropping of letters (vowels particularly) to improve speed. Varient spelling was also common, as any warez dood would tell you.

  • I find myself having a schizoid reaction to this.

    I find that grammarians long ago went overboard in trying to standardize the language to the point where they were teaching people a fake version of English that real people never spoke. I recently got out of a college English class where I got an A, with the highest scores in the class. I found half the textbook and much of what the teacher said laughable and chucked the book when I was done. I still pay not the least bit of attention to what the grammarians would claim is “correct” or “proper” English.

    I also agree that English spelling is probably the most difficult of any language with a phonetic alphabet. So I’m not surprised that kids would, left to their own devices, find ways to simplify.

    And yet, and yet, it seems perfectly obvious that there’s such a thing as taking these things too far.

    Call me wishy-washy.

  • I think it is a bad thing to try to standardise a language too much. Part of why we can express ourselves so clearly in English is that the language’s rules are somewhat malleable. As a consequence it is always evolving and picking up new words and ideas.

    That said, it is necessary to be able to make yourself understood, and for that reason we do have standard American English and standard British English. There are no organisations saying quite what these are, but we know what they are, Essentially, they are what is taught in schools. Part of the purpose of schools is to make sure that we can write and speak those standard versions of English.

    I see no reason whatsoever to denigrate any other version of English, be it Liverpudlian, Australian, text message speak, Ebonics, Singlish, Glaswegian, or whatever. (People do denigrate them all the time, however). It is possible for people to use one of these dialects when it is appropriate to do so, and to switch to a more standard version of English when that is appropriate. Half the English speakers of the world do this.

    As far as the comment that “There must be rigorous efforts from all quarters of the education system to stamp out the use of texting as a form of written language so far as English study is concerned” I pretty much agree, as long as the sentence includes that last “so far as English study is concerned”. It isn’t appropriate for an assignment, as part of the purpose of that assignment is to ensure that the student can write standard English. (It may be that the texting language is interesting as a subject for study in itself, however).

  • I cannot speak for GB, but America’s teachers are often the scuts of the academic ladder. They usually score lowest on college entrance exams, etc. Martin Gross mentioned this in his book “Conspiracy of Ignorance.” He gives some picturesque examples of illiteracy from PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS no less! Thomas Sowell also mentions this in his “Inside American Education.”

    I must admit that those of us in information technology have contributed to this mangling of the English language ourselves. Ever since the two words “writer” and “type” were combined into the single word “typewriter” it has been all downhill.

  • Helen Walter

    For those attempting to trace the evolution of the txt dialect:

    In 1962, abbreviations such as “tx” (thanks), “txt” (text) “pls” (please) and other highly common abbreviations that we all know and love from our mobiles were being used by my mother, working as a Telex operator.

    (For those who [dare I suppose it?] don’t know, Telex operated via the telephone lines, and was similar to a telegram but business-to-business. Punchcard-era technology, although it had similarities to modern IRC and other chats.)

    I think we can safely say that ten to fifteen years is a slightly conservative estimate for the evolution of this particular dialect.

    (And as for the comments about grammarians espousing ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ usage – I don’t want to start an involved debate here, because it’s been done to death elsewhere, but most modern, practising grammarians will tell you that, for you, ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ English is the English you speak. “Yours Faithfully, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” is not a grammarian, he is merely a pedant, although the two are easily confused.)


  • karna

    i luv TeXtInG 4 ever & ever. its the plea of world