Let’s Talk About Texting

Originally published at charlatan.ca

You’re not sure if you feel ashamed or slightly amused with yourself, but either way, you did it—you said “lol” out loud in a conversation. The infamous response from all things slightly amusing to downright hilarious in our newly technological world.

With “YOLO” and “sub-tweet” as recent additions to the Oxford Dictionary, it begs the question of where language quality and communication might be headed, and whether all of this lingo is improving or degrading our ability to communicate.

Graphics by Andre Baynes.

Graphics by Andre Baynes.


Jaffer Sheyholislami, an applied linguistics professor at Carleton University, focuses on the effects of social media on language. He said contrary to popular belief, much of what we associate with texting lingo came long before cellphones.

“With respect to abbreviations, first there were gross exaggerations about frequency of them in texting,” he said.

“At its peak, maybe abbreviations made up about 10 per cent of texts. Secondly, abbreviated writing wasn’t invented because of texting but in spite of it. This existed in the Victorian time,” he said.

Robin Norris, an English professor at Carleton, said the impact of technologies on language dates even further back.
“The English language is always changing and developing,” she said.

“For example, Roman missionaries in 597 brought new technology of writing, literacy and manuscript culture and the written alphabet.”

At the time, she explained, this sparked significant changes in language and can be compared to the development of modern technology starting in the 20th century.

Sheyholislami explained famous author Lewis Caroll’s written contractions.

Ones such as “wo’n’t” and “sha’n’t” are a couple of examples for which Caroll received similar backlash and critiques for.

He responded, “I can only plead my firm conviction that popular usage is wrong.”

Graphic by Helen Mak.

Sheyholislami said this shows abbreviations are an extension of creativity, referring to a notion coined by linguist David Crystal who said “in order to change the spelling of something, you have to know how to spell it in the first place.”

Sheyholislami agreed that abbreviations are a positive expression of language.

“It means there is a phonological awareness. You have to know phonologically how words sound to be able to play with it,” he said.

He also emphasized, contrary to the popular myth, texting is not a teenage trend. The “most important text in human history,” he said, was when Barrack Obama texted his choice of vice-presidential running mate.

Sheyholislami also noted that the idea that texting is degrading English is a myth, one that revolves around the fear of the unknown, something that has always come with technological advances.

“For a long time, institutions didn’t like the printing press. They thought only those in authority and power should have access to knowledge and information. That’s one way the printing press popularized knowledge,” he said. “New technologies not only have had a more significant impact on distribution of knowledge, but they have also helped language to become more diversified, innovative, and playful.”

Throwin’ down the lingo

Thomas Holtgraves, psychology professor at Ball State University in Indiana conducted a study last year titled Texting versus talking: An exploration in telecommunication language where he explored the linguistic and psychological differences in texting conversations versus those on the phone.

His study reported, “text messages were sent more frequently when others were present (60 per cent) than when the texter was alone (40 per cent).”

In addition, he found that over half of the texts were generated at one’s own home while the next common place was in class.

He also found people used more cognitive words in talking (know, think) and more intuitive words in texting (feel, love).

“The most striking thing for me about texting is how frequent and affective it is. It allows some people to stay in constant emotional contact with one another,” he said via email.

Holtgraves said he has always had an interest in the function of language in different social settings, and said the idea for the study was an outgrowth of that.


While texting and talking require different types of language, so does the way we write and Sheyholislami said recent technology has only allowed us to improve our communication skills.

He said those who text and use twitter are forced to be more innovative with language because of the word constraints.

“You can’t repeat yourself and only have about 20-25 words. How will you say your statement with the most impact? That is an art,” he said.

Sheyholislami said these skills are transferable to academic writing.

Some components of an essay, he said, require the same kind of thinking and composing as a text or tweet.

“A topic sentence shows me that students are not just writing, they’re writing purposefully,” he said. “If one tweets a lot, I believe they will be very good at that concise writing skill.”

Norris said, as an English professor, she’s heard the complaints about students’ writing—how texting can make students illiterate, but she said she also disagrees.

“I think students are reading and writing more than ever before. As a culture, there is a shift to informality, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” she said.

In the study, Undergraduates’ attitudes to text messaging language and intrusions of textisms into formal writing researchers Abbie Grace, Nenagh Kemp, Frances H. Martin, and Rauno Parrila also discovered university students know when it is and isn’t appropriate to use “textisms”.

In the first part of their study, they had 86 Australian and 150 Canadian undergraduate students rate the appropriateness of using textisms in various situations, including texting via mobile devices, professional and non-professional emails, and academic writing.

The participants’ responses showed they felt using textisms in messages to their peers is appropriate. Their responses also showed they understood using such casual language was inappropriate in academic examinations and assignments.

In the second part of the study, the researchers checked the examination papers of a separate group of one hundred and fifty-three Australian undergraduates for the use of textisms.

The number of textisms found within these examinations was insignificant.

There were also no significant differences between the Australian and Canadian sample groups.

Taking texting too srsly? 

Through their study, The relationship between cell phone use, academic performance, anxiety, and Satisfaction with Life in college student researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob E. Barkley, and Aryn C. Karpinski found increased student cell phone use can negatively impact overall academic performance, mental health, and subjective well-being or happiness.Although texting does not adversely affect young people’s formal writing, it can negatively affect their academics in other ways.

According to the study, students who are high frequency cell phone users spend less of their time focusing on academic pursuits, such as attending class, completing homework assignments, and studying because such a large portion of their time is spent using their cell phones.

It suggested students are tempted by the distraction that cell phones present from their schoolwork.

For high frequency cell phone users, this temptation is probably too difficult to resist in most situations, which probably causes them to use their phones during class and studying time.

Multitasking and task switching in this way is known to decrease academic performance, mostly because the student engaging in this kind of behavior isn’t focusing their entire attention on taking in the information they are trying to learn.

To “lol” or not to “lol”

Samantha Shortt is the co-ordinator of Carleton’s Writing Tutorial Service (WTS), and agreed she has noticed an increase in informality in student’s writing.

“I have seen it creeping into students’ writing at the WTS. I have noticed a more casual and over-familiar style used in emails from students: examples such as no opening or closing salutations, lack of capitalization, excessive use of symbols,” she said, explaining this indicates the lack of awareness of differing forms of writing.

The requirements of different writing styles is one of the main skills WTS aims to teach, Shortt said.

Sheyholislami said the differences in tone are essential for students to learn, but ones they have always had to demonstrate.

“People don’t talk to their parents as they talk to their peers. They don’t talk to their professors as they do their parents. Switching genres is important, but not something new,” he said.

Changing language to accommodate for different mediums, audiences, and styles can be challenging, but it’s part of the skill of communicating.

Changing the communication plane

Texting may have established LOLs and BFFs as common terms, or decreased our attention span in class, but it has changed how student communicate.

This is an inevitable change that Sheyholislami said is not going anywhere.

“Instead of sensationalizing and creating fear about how bad technology is for language, I think we should embrace it,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, these things are here to stay.”


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