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  • Researchers: IM definitely infectious, but associated linguistic damage short-lived, haha

    James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, recently charged that internet chat and cell phone text messaging were causing “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence.”  

    Despite the fact that neuroscientists are nowhere near isolating the basic unit of human thought, and linguists can’t agree on a definition of a sentence, Billington wants to place a Librarian General’s warning on all cell phones that texting kills thought.

    Librarian General's warning
    The Librarian General's warning, fully spelled out

    But although you’ll have to pry their cell phones from their cold, dead hands before teenagers will give up messaging, their brains are in no danger from the controversial symptoms frequently associated with this popular activity: lol, brb, ttfn, gtg, lmao, and the use of u for you.

    Writing in the latest issue of American Speech, two researchers at the University of Toronto have found that high-school-aged users of IM quickly abandon many of the stereotypical abbreviations associated with the activity, and that while some of them occasionally inject an “OMG, OMG,” into their conversation, such alphabetisms inflict no more linguistic damage than Ben Bernanke mentioning “NGO’s” at a meeting of the Fed or David Petraeus discussing the effects of “IED’s” before a Congressional hearing.  OK, maybe IED’s aren't the best example.

    Another recent study by the Pew Internet Project confirms that English isn’t dead yet.  According to this report, 85% of American teens use some form of digital messaging, but only 38% incorporate shortcuts like LOL in their book reports, and fewer still, about 25%, use emoticons like the smiley face, Smile, in their essays.  That’s probably because a whopping 86% of teens surveyed believe that good writing is important to success in life (only 83% of their parents think so), and 60% of these teens don’t even consider their favorite writing activities, texting and facebooking, to be real writing (to which the researchers at Pew exclaimed, WTF?).

    Monty Python

    According to a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, or PIP, despite the widespread impact of informal digital communication, not to mention traditional abbreviations like the ampersand and BBQ, English is not dead yet

    Young children quickly pick up on linguistic cues, figuring out without benefit of formal instruction that talking to teachers is different from talking to parents is different from talking to friends.  They learn as well that some people use language differently from them, and they develop standards for judging the appropriateness of other people’s language, not just their own.

    So it shouldn’t be surprising that teen-age writers, even if they haven’t mastered the demands of writing for school, are cued in to enough linguistic nuances to realize almost as a matter of course that writing is an important medium of communication, and that what’s appropriate for some kinds of writing may not be appropriate for others.

    Many of these kids are clued-in enough to note that cell phone use may not be appropriate, say, at a fancy restaurant or a during a bar mitzvah, and a few have learned the hard way that texting in class is just as unsubtle as passing notes.  But if my own college students are anything to go by, the one thing they seem to have missed in the digital revolution is the fact that while texting might not have a toxic effect on brain function, driving while texting – DWT, an activity that more of my own students admit to than texting during  class – is likely to be hazardous to their health.

    There are no stats confirming the dangers of texting while operating a motor vehicle (of course, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to confirm that talking on a cellphone correlates with accidents).  But while drivers continue to insist that anything they do with a cell phone is no less distracting than changing a CD, eating a taco, or breaking up a fight between siblings in the backseat, DWT is now a crime in Washington State – punishable by a $101 fine, if the driver lives to have a day in court – and at least nine other states have considered banning the practice.  

    So while the Librarian General’s warning may not gain much traction in Congress, the Department of Transportation is already taking bids on signs to discourage driving while texting.

    Highway sign discouraging DWT
    The federal government isn’t buying the Librarian of Congress’s argument that text-induced alphabetisms are hazardous to sentence structure, but the DOT’s NHTSA has determined that DWT is likely to be dangerous to your health
kyancey@fsu.edu Apr 26, 2008 11:37 am

Dennis, for such a smart post. If texting is harming our brains (since aome of us older than teens text), we surely want to know about it. But in the meantime, it's a good question as to why James Billington might make such a claim. Any thoughts on that?


debaron@illinois.edu Apr 26, 2008 1:36 pm
Billington was speaking in early April at the LOC in connection with release of NAEP data showing small gains in writing test scores among lower-achieving students.  There's a link to the NY Times article about this in the post.
theweekendgrillers@gmail.com Aug 15, 2008 6:09 pm

"BBQ" is searched for FAR more often on Google than "Barbeque" or "Barbecue".  You would think maybe that Bar-B-Q would also rank high, but it doesn't. 


Keeping up with the changing English language and knowing what people are apt to search for is a full time job for a webmaster and it isn't getting any better.

I'm just glad I don't run sites for teens.  OMG!



debaron@illinois.edu Nov 18, 2008 8:24 am
Greetings, I continually tried to post this on your "Web of Language" blog, specifically on the post entitled "Researchers: IM definitely infectious, but associated linguistic damage short-lived, haha" but had no such luck. I have included my comments below if you are interested!! Perhaps you could post them as a comment? The computer wouldn't allow me to do so. Or you may comment back on my blog: www.emilyoettinger.blogspot.com. I am very interested by your post about instant messaging, especially the points that made me reconsider my overall negative views of online abbreviations. For example, you say that high-school-aged users may sometimes add an "OMG" while typing, but "such alphabetisms inflict no more linguistic damage than Ben Bernanke mentioning 'NGO�s' at a meeting of the Fed." This is a valid point; no one would criticize Bernanke for shortening "non-governmental organization" because an abbreviation in this situation makes him sound credible and informed in the field. Similarly, doctors in an emergency room say "run an EKG" to express themselves quickly, whereas repeating "electrocardiogram" is inefficient if a patient is experiencing heart failure. Although a term like "OMG" clearly is not as important as "EKG" in my previous example, people use condensed speech to make a point in a timely manner, despite its frivolousness. Condensing English in such a way does not appear detrimental as long as it is used accordingly and the individual knows the phrase's elongated meaning. The English language might be transforming, for better or for worse, as a consequence of rapidly-moving lifestyles that cause humans to shorten speech. I would be more concerned if individuals grew up exclusively using terms like "ttyl" and "omg" because those abbreviations would have become a substitute for the four-word and three-word phrase, respectively. If a succession of letters like these begins to take on meanings in and of itself, problems would undoubtedly arise, for example while trying to translate words when learning a foreign language, or having a foreigner learn English. I suppose it could be viewed as a sort of slang used regionally, just as colloquial Spanish is different in Mexico, El Salvador, and Spain. What are your thoughts regarding the transformation of the English language? Do you think such abbreviations would ever merit addition to a traditional dictionary? As evidence that the English is undergoing change, you cite a Pew Internet Project study citing that 85 percent of American teens message digitally, while "38 percent incorporate shortcuts like LOL in their book reports, and fewer still, about 25 percent, use emoticons like the smiley face, in the essays." This does not seem to concern you, but I believe this is worrisome. When you state that teens are "cued in to enough linguistic nuances" that they can distinguish "what's appropriate for some kinds of writing may not be appropriate for others," but this is an alarmingly high number using internet-speak in the classroom.

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