Why You Should Discourage Your Children from Writing in Techspeak

by Tamara N. Jones

Techspeak is the use of common acronyms and abbreviations in lieu of fully spelled out words you wish to communicate. For example: ADN – Any Day Now, CWYL – Chat With You Later and WE – Whatever, you get the point. Are there times when it is helpful to use shortcuts? Yes! For instance, I find myself using it when I am about to go underground and know that the time I take to say “See you in five minutes”, I can say “cu in 5”. Under circumstances such as this, using shortcut works in my favor. But for children, using techspeak as their primary written communication with friends and family every single day, it is not advantageous to their developing mind. As a matter of fact, it endangers their cognitive development. According to professor S. Shyam Sundar and Drew P. Cingel, in their article Texting, techspeak, and tweens The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills, adolescents, 13-17, are more likely to use “techspeak”. This habitual way of writing not only “rob[s] this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar”, but also affects their performance on grammar assessments. Though text messaging technologies are useful and convenient, there is “a general relationship between messaging and adolescent grammar skills”. One of Sundar and Cingel interesting findings is relationship between messages received and messages sent. It seems  adolescents adapt their language based on the messages they receive. In other words, if the message they receive reads “lol gr8 4 u” they are likely to respond in techspeak as well.

One of the most troublesome findings in their research is that adolescents are not able to successfully code switch. Most adolescents cannot switch from techspeak to correct English in the classroom. This is problem as there is an upward trend in using technology in classroom to teach adolescents and techspeak has now found itself in the classroom and “these adaptations carry over into standard writing practices”. One particular fallout that Sundar and Cingel do not cover, and I suppose it is because it is not within the scope of their research, is this written adaptation can carry over in speech. I often hear adolescents speak in techspeak to each other. With techspeak and slang, it is nearly impossible to understand what is being said. Sadly, just like in writing, these adolescents do not see that there is a time and a place for everything. When speaking to your teacher, saying “omg teach” is not the proper or respectful way of communicating with someone in a position of authority. It muddles the boundaries, if not, erase them.

How can you prevent your child/children from becoming  a victim? Require that they communicate with you in standard English. As the research noted, adolescents are likely to respond in the similar way the message was received. This includes avoiding conjugations. Write “it is” instead of “it’s”. Just as techspeak is a form of habit, standard English can also become their new habit at least when communicating with their parents and other adults.

A Harvard linguist reveals the most misused words in English

Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used.

English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee.

Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly.”

It’s all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.

Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling authorrecently wrote a book, titled “The Sense of Style,” that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.

If you’re in the market for an update to , old Strunk and White, it’s probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot-check that you’ve not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start.

Here are some highlights:

  1. Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
  2. Appraise means to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
  3. Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise the question.” Correct: “When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”
  4. Bemused means “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
  5. Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
  6. Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”] Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”
  7. Depreciate means to “decrease in value.” It does not mean to “deprecate” or to “disparage.” Correct: “My car has depreciated a lot over the years.” / “She deprecated his efforts.”
  8. Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
  9. Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
  10. Hone means to “sharpen.” It does not mean to “home in on” or “to converge upon.” Correct: “She honed her writing skills.” / “We’re homing in on a solution.”
  11. Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
  12. Ironic means “uncannily incongruent.” It does not mean “inconvenient” or “unfortunate.” Correct: “It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.” / “It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.”
  13. Nonplussed means “stunned” or “bewildered.” It does not mean “bored” or “unimpressed.” Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”
  14. Parameter refers to a variable. It not mean “boundary condition” or “limit.” Correct: “The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.” / “We need to work within budgetary limits.”
  15. Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun. Correct: “The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.”
  16. Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles–not words in the past tense. Correct: “I’ve shrunk my shirt.” / “I shrank my shirt.”
  17. Simplistic means “naively or overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: “His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material.” / “She liked the chair’s simple look.”
  18. Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
  19. Effect means “influence”; to effect means “to put into effect”; to affect means either “to influence” or “to fake.” Correct: “They had a big effect on my style.” / “The law effected changes at the school.” / “They affected my style.” / “He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.”
  20. Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”

It should be noted that while it’s always good to polish up your writing, one of the joys of language is that it isn’t fixed in time. It evolves. Nor is there a single “correct” style (in English, at least).

You’d neither connect nor impress if you chose your words like an Oxford don at a rap battle (though, actually, someone please make that YouTube video), and you’d be unlikely to get a job at an investment bank today speaking like Shakespeare.

Why is this important? It’s easy to get too caught up in being perfectly “correct” and become a tedious language snob. Remember you probably want to come across as intelligent and thoughtful, not uptight and pedantic. So don’t get so worked up over the little things that you miss the larger point of good writing — to communicate clearly and engagingly with your chosen audience.

Going for the hard sell as interest in English major declines

Mary Garhart fell in love with reading in middle school, devouring Christopher Paolini’s fantasy novel “Eragon” and the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Then she moved to classics from Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre.” She had a yen for writing. What’s more, there were literary influences in her family: a grandmother with a master’s degree in English, a grandfather who taught English.

So when Garhart entered the University of Maryland in fall 2011, she had no doubt about her field of study. “English,” she said, “is the obvious major.”

This has been true for generations of college students drawn to the poetry, drama, novels and other works of a language that has become a global medium since its origins centuries ago in the British Isles.

But for many, English is not so obvious anymore.

Like several disciplines in the humanities, English has faced hard questions in recent years. The Great Recession of 2008-09 led a growing number of students, urged by parents who want a “return” on their tuition investment, to pick majors they perceived as more likely to enhance their career prospects. This preoccupation with an economic rationale for going to college had been building for many years. But the economic downturn and its aftermath compounded job worries.

Numbers from College Park, home of the flagship public university of Maryland, tell a story that echoes in one way or another at schools across the country.

In fall 2009, there were 792 English majors among U-Md. undergraduates. That was nearly equal the total of computer science majors, 796. Five years later the computer science total had more than doubled, to 1,730. The total for English had fallen 39 percent, to 483.

English was hardly alone in decline. Down at least a quarter in that span were major totals for anthropology, art history, general biology and history.

At the University of Virginia, the English major count fell 18 percent from 2009 to 2013. History was down 31 percent; philosophy, 40 percent. Computer science was up 108 percent.

Nationwide about 50,000 students a year earn bachelor’s degrees in English, a total little changed in this century even as the number of degrees conferred in all subjects has risen nearly 50 percent. Students these days choose from an ever-expanding academic menu, with specialized majors in business, health, engineering, security, technology and other fields.

Fluctuations in demand are common. One topic might get hot as another cools. Arabic studies, introduced at College Park in 2008, has developed a solid niche. Interest in American studies has slid. The journalism major with a “multiplatform” focus has taken off as more consumers rely on digital news sources. The journalism major focused on magazines is being phased out.

Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at U-Md. since 2011, said there are often “ebbs and flows” in majors. But she acknowledged that her college, home to English, history and other core departments, must ramp up recruiting. Dill said she wants to “bust the myths” students might hold about the value of English and certain other majors in the job market.

“The approaches that we use in teaching the humanities and the arts … do give students the skills that employers are looking for,” Dill said. “And they also give students skills that are transferable to a lot of different kinds of work settings and situations.” Employers, she said, “need people who have broader capabilities to be creative and thoughtful.”

Across the country, humanities majors are under siege as politicians have questioned their economic value.

In January 2014, President Obama talked up the virtues of manufacturing at the expense of art history. “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” he said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history.” (Obama later apologized for the remark.)

Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a possible Republican presidential candidate, lamented in a speech that many students take on debt to obtain degrees that won’t lead to a job. “So you can decide whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major,” Rubio said. “Because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.”

There is much debate about the value of different degrees. It takes some graduates a while to reach their full earning potential. Others pursue lower-paying careers in public service that offer intangible benefits. There are powerful (and countless) arguments for why learning is valuable for its own sake. But many students and parents measure value in salaries.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, analyzing 2013 census data, found that college graduates ages 25 to 59 earned a median annual wage of $61,000. English majors earned a median annual wage of $53,000. Computer science majors earned $83,000.

The English department at College Park, recognizing that it must market itself, relies on an economic pitch. A leaflet in its office — “So, you’re thinking about majoring in English?” — tells prospective students: “Some of our English majors go on to teach, but many others become editors, writers, lawyers, businesswomen or researchers. Some English majors even become doctors!”

Garhart, 21, a senior from Anne Arundel County, wants to explore book publishing. An English major from the start, she also is minoring in creative writing. To boost her career options, she decided to pursue a second major in business management. After a nerve-racking process that included taking prerequisite classes in accounting, economics and statistics; gathering recommendations; and applying to the university’s Smith School of Business, she got in. She will need five years to finish her studies . Tuition and fees for Maryland residents, not counting books, room and board, total more than $9,500 a year.

Does she enjoy business classes as much as she does the Novel in America to 1914? Or Literature of London, which she took one spring?

“I don’t think I’ll ever love any other course as much as English,” Garhart said.

English professors are also keen to attract students who might not see themselves as literature buffs. This spring they offered a $100 prize to the student who could make the best promotional video on “what makes English the best major at UMD.”

Department chairman William A. Cohen said the faculty has also begun sending a letter to every student who earns an A in an introductory course and is not an English major.

“I am writing to you because I noticed that you did exceptionally well last semester” in class, the letter states, “and I would encourage you to consider English as a major (or a second major).” The letter says the major requires “just 36 credits” — of at least 120 required for a bachelor’s degree — “and is flexible enough to fit in easily with your other academic pursuits.”

Amanda Bailey, an associate professor who is a Shakespeare specialist, said that when students make an astute comment in class, she often pulls them aside for a quick word of encouragement if they have not already declared in English. “You really have a knack for this,” she will say. “What’s your major?”

Typically, she emphasizes the “career viability” of the English major. “It doesn’t mean you have to be an English teacher,” she said. Medical, business and law schools are options. Good writers are in high demand in science, too.

The department’s recruiting efforts go beyond outreach. Its course catalogue includes more offerings with crossover appeal for the tech crowd: Literature in a Wired World; Writing in the Wireless World; Science, Gender and Classic Science Fiction; Literature of Science and Technology; and more. There is also broad cultural diversity — with many courses, for example, in literature from the African diaspora — as well as depth in the foundational texts: Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest.

Will all of this work? Will English rebound at College Park?

Kent Cartwright, a veteran English professor and former department chairman, urged a shift in thinking at the highest levels of a university proud of its prowess in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re so completely STEM-driven,” Cartwright said. The administration, he said, is “full of people with goodwill” toward the humanities. “But they see the well-being of the university in a certain kind of way. We’re just not part of it.”

Wallace D. Loh, president of U-Md. since 2010, disagreed. He said he likes to think of the university as a flower. “That flower has a long and very sturdy ‘STEM,’ ” Loh said. “But at the top of that STEM, there’s a flower, a blossom. And that flower is the humanities.” He said he walks around campus “with that metaphor of the flower in my head all the time. We have to nurture that blossom.”

Loh said the university is committed to maintaining a strong faculty in the humanities regardless of ups and downs in the number of majors. However, he said, if he had money to expand the faculty, and if someone proposed adding another expert in Victorian literature, “my answer is, well, not at this time.”

What about expanding faculty in computer science? Loh, worried that class sizes are nearing “intolerable” levels, said he would be more inclined to give that a green light.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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