The Internet and Written Communication

It started with chat rooms. Typing is not a dearly-embraced skill, especially among the young. So “byb” and “omg” became a form of shorthand. Text messaging via cell phones also contributed to the urge to abbreviate. There is real justification for that, because grammatical writing with proper punctuation is a real pain with a standard cell phone. The process of ignoring punctuation and capitalization rules and being “creative” about spelling spilled over into instant messaging and email. So you probably have received an email like this: “how r u doing”.

This kind of informal written communication is fine, when it is between peers. The problem is that too many young people seem to think the same standards should apply in a more formal setting. Some of them apparently never bothered to learn the rules for proper punctuation and grammatical sentence structure. Our schools failed in instructing many of them. Some of them know how to write in a formal manner but never bother to do so.

In the world of business, resumes, written answers to application questions, and emails are all documents that are used to evaluate a person for hiring and for promotion once they are on the job. Some people apparently think emails are ephemeral and only exist long enough for the recipient to read them. For a business, an email is often a permanent record. Legal restrictions forbid deleting some types of email, and companies usually err on the side of safety by saving all of them.

If you use Twitter, “tweets” are limited to 140 characters, which means shortened spelling and no punctuation are the norm. Those habits can carry over into more formal communication.

Ultimately, though, we cannot blame the Internet for poor writing discipline. Even with chat rooms, text messaging, and Twitter contributing to a lack of standards in written communications, the burden must rest squarely on the shoulders of those who do not write in complete sentences, never bother with punctuation, and are indifferent about spelling.

Television has been blamed for many years for “dumbing down” the public. There may be a kernel of truth in that. Probably 80% of television programming is mindless drivel. But then, 80% of everything is mindless drivel. We still have great literature despite the abundance of written works with little justification for their existence.

Before such a thing as text messaging was technologically possible, there were truck drivers exchanging comments with CB radios. In fact, there was a brief fad among teenagers for CBs several years ago. Some of the back and forth among the truck drivers was useful. They would warn other drivers about road and traffic problems (and smokies!). Sometimes two or three drivers would discuss specifics of their equipment, debating about the merits of different transmissions or engines. Mostly, though, a CB conversation went something like this:

·       How are yall doing? · 

       We’re fine. How about you? · 

       I’m fine. See you later. ·

       Okay. Be safe.

Text messages and now Twitter are mostly the same kind of stuff. Tweeting what you had for lunch and where does not constitute literature.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It would be easy to blame the Internet or Twitter for poorly written documents of any kind, but the source of the problem lies in a general lack of discipline. Our young people have grown up in a world where there are no consequences. They skip school with impunity. They do not have to pass one class in order to be promoted to the next. In their minds, there is no solid reason to use or even to learn basic principles of sentence structure and punctuation. Spelling is taken care of by an electronic spellchecker, which can indeed inform you if you have misspelled a word but is no help at all if you have chosen the wrong word.

We, as a society, have decided that we must not impede the little darlings. We have designed competitions in which everybody gets a trophy. About 37% of our high school graduates finish with an “A” average. Do we really believe that more than a third of our students are doing schoolwork that is consistently excellent? How do we reconcile that idea with the fact that on worldwide measurements of performance our students rank way down the list? Absenteeism is a huge problem in business because two generations have learned they only need to show up when they want to.

Blame the Internet if you like. The real source of the problem is deeper and more pervasive.