April 25, 2008

What is the roll [sic] of traditional righting [sic] and grammar in the digital age?

Of all the figures in our recently released report on teens and writing, none has captured the imagination of the media quite like the finding that the conventions of electronic communication are filtering into the writing that teens do for school. We found that nearly two-thirds of teens admit to using some form of informal text in their school writing: half use non-standard punctuation and capitalization, four in ten have used text shortcuts (such as “LOL”), and one quarter have used emoticons.

Given the concerns that this has raised about the future of writing, it’s worth stopping for a moment to note that this trend is hardly limited to teens who take notes with one hand while texting their friends with another. As Garance Franke-Ruta notes in this insightful post, the growth of the blogosphere has created an entire journalistic universe of lightly-edited text in which traditional grammar and punctuation are less important than substantive content or exposure to new and interesting information.

To use one example, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds’ influential instapundit blog consists almost entirely of links to interesting articles along with fragmentary bits of analysis (a typical post may consist of nothing more than a link plus a comment such as “Heh” or “Indeed”). And as traditional journalistic ventures such as the Atlantic Monthly or the Economist have jumped into the blogospheric fray, the lines between the two modes of writing have blurred substantially. Franke-Ruta’s post was inspired by her friend and Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias, who is one of the most insightful young journalists out there today–as well as a serial grammatical offender with an illustrious history of mis-spellings, inappropriate homonyms and bizarre punctuation.

Franke-Ruta predicts that we are entering a world in which meaning is more important than form, and where writers are judged more on the content of their arguments than on their pristine spelling. This is not to argue that traditional spelling and grammar have no use, or that we shouldn’t bother teaching teenagers basic rules for writing. But in thinking about how technology and writing interact with each other, it bears remembering that language has always been fluid and evolving, and that the rules of written speech have always been highly dependent on the tools people use to compose their thoughts. And frankly, I’m personally willing to sacrifice a comma here or there for writing that is engaging, thought provoking and that expands my intellectual horizons.