December 13, 2004
Highland High School sophomore Chelsea Johnson, 15, loves to talk. The Gilbert student keeps in touch with many of her classmates on the telephone, but the main way she communicates with her friends when they are apart is through Internet instant messaging.
Johnson exchanges messages almost daily with up to 200 friends using the screen name BabyCuzz — and another 200 friends using the screen name ChelJ.
Overall, she maintains about 25 instant messaging identities.
"It’s like talking on the phone, except on the computer," Johnson said. "And I can have multiple conversations at the same time."
Like most people who use instant messaging, Johnson said she throws out conventional spelling, grammar and punctuation when she writes in favor of speed and brevity.
She omits vowels, punctuation marks and capital letters. And instead of spelling out common phrases, she employs an arsenal of abbreviations and acronyms that would baffle many parents.
The informal language works great among teens in e-mails, chat rooms and instant messages, but many East Valley writing teachers say the slang has also started showing up on class assignments.
"You’re so used to cutting things down and making it faster and shorter that you do it without thinking about it," Johnson said.
LANGUAGE POLICE SOUND THE ALARM
Associated Press editor Norm Goldstein said the lackadaisical writing habits that students learn online have also started showing up in business e-mails and other forms of communication outside school.
"Instead of improving the quality of our written communication, the pop culture impact of e-mail has degraded it into a ‘fast food’ shorthand that often ends up reading like either bad porn dialogue or something so childish even ‘Sesame Street’ wouldn’t allow it," said Goldstein, who oversees publication of the Associated Press Stylebook, a resource guide for writers.
A national panel established by the College Board in New York reached a similar conclusion after a recent survey of 120 American corporations.
The New York Times, which reported the survey last week, said the study showed that one-third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies write poorly and that businesses spend as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.
Art Garbosky, a veteran English teacher at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, said he has watched the infiltration of Internet slang into the classroom.
His school has some of the top writing scores in the state on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, but Garbosky said Corona del Sol teachers still see plenty of Internet shorthand that renders some papers unreadable — especially essays written by incoming freshmen.
"They’ve looked at so many e-mails and IMs that they think it’s fine," he said. "They don’t understand the gap between the voice they use with a friend and the voice they use with the world at large. They don’t understand an academic voice."
SPREADING THE BLAME
But some researchers put more blame on the education industry for producing sloppy writers than on new technology.
Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University in Washington, D.C., said schools have been moving away from grammar and punctuation instruction for the last 50 years. She said students frequently type their school papers on the same keyboards they use for instant messaging, and teachers should not be surprised when Internet slang or sloppy mechanics slip into their writing.
"All of society has become much more informal," she said.
Rick Wagoner, a middle school English teacher at BASIS Scottsdale charter school, said the spread of instant messaging has not stopped his students from writing correctly when they need to.
A pile of textbooks on his desk last week included a grammar and usage workbook, and Wagoner said he still hits the subject pretty hard with his students.
"You’ll see Internet shorthand on the first draft of a paper," Wagoner said. "But by they time they get to the final draft, they are thinking about academic writing."
He said instant messaging might even help with the drafting process because it makes students more comfortable getting ideas out of their heads and onto paper.
"At one level, I think there is some advantage to that," Wagoner said.