An old English professor told me more than a year ago about the loss of letter writing. He wished someone would write him letters; he still writes letters instead of emails. He was lamenting the fact that we’ve lost touch with each other with electronic writing. But he wasn’t even alluding to touch screens and smart devices. I do know what he is referring to as a lover of fountain pens and inks, beautiful pastel papeterie and good penmanship, but I encouraged him to not hesitate so much and to join the era of digital writing because we are not reverting back to letter writing any time soon, but moving forward to faster and faster means of communication.
But the problem is not just about writing digitally. It is also about punctuation, penmanship and expression. Penmanship [our students’ and children’s] has taken quite a beating and those who have to correct papers know only too well how we suffer to get through papers. It is difficult and sometimes painful to read hand writings when we get compositions. Grammar, punctuation and everything that goes into composing a sentence are suffering because students are punctuating their papers the way they punctuate their texts and posts. The length of a paper has begun its downward descent and that is probably due to the influence or habit or both of writing short, overpunctuated sentences to which they’ve become habituated.
Punctuation has in fact taken on a new effusiveness in expression, as if it is on steroids all of a sudden: hyperboles, exclamation points, question marks abound to the point that words have become fewer and these new-styled punctuation marks have invaded our screens and some students’ essays. A lowly full stop has become freighted with significance, and angry while the exclamation point has become desperate, like the ones used in comic strips and cartoons when punctuation of this style was used to convey insults or surprise or confusion. Symbols including [recurring] exclamation and question marks as well as asterisks and number signs would be emboldened to signify shouting or insulting etc. Fragments are proliferated today, and converstn abbrvtn typical of that old -style comic strips and cartoons have made a reappearance. But we aren’t speaking words out aloud. Nor are we insulting. Yet, we are writing and texting by over punctuating or under punctuating improtant and unimportant messages: to say that something is amazing exclamation marks are used, or extra ‘gs’ in ‘omg’ to show the degree of amazing or shocking; ILY for i love you; HBU for how about you; capital letters for emphasis, spaces after a word, which means something specific to its users, and then there are codes to convey boredom or straight face or aloofness…
Pauses and inflections seem to fill tonal holes in those spaces.
Sometimes, one spends an insane amount of spend time trying to decipher and decode children’s abbreviation when all one wants to do is know something quick and precise. Parents find themselves texting back asking their kids what does so-and-so abbrevtn or symbol or group of symbols mean. Apparently there are shortcuts that children use that circulate only in their little group in addition to the many other shortcuts they already employ. It is akin to learning a new language. I could add that to my CV, under the languages I know.
But to be fair to millennials and digital technology digital punctuation carry more weight than traditional writing precisely because it has to convey tone, rhythm and attitude rather than correct, beautiful and grammatical structure. It has to be one word assessments attached to eye grabbing video or image. In the texting era words are less and symbols are more. And when words fail, emojis take over, which now come in all color of skins for ‘all’ to use. The bottom line is that so much is image driven on the Internet that people are compelled to use much stronger language than they might ordinarily use to compete with the image. There’s little space for subtlety on social media and people have become more and more outrageous. It takes far more time and energy to express a nuanced relation to a personal essay than simply writing ‘heart’ or ‘omg’ etc. Plus, there’s the anonymity factor, which can further exacerbate one’s outrageousness. It is not uncommon to see one word take-downs to criticize someone rather than emphasize that person’s humanity among the rich and famous. That kind of writing makes it easier to condemn rather than communicate any reflection, causing social media to dumb down interpretations.
Still, internet speak and digital writing have probably liberated us as we are divided and taken up by work, families, school, etc. With one word posts and fragmented and overpunctuated speech we have found ways to run the rat race and still communicate and keep in touch. Yet, educators still have to teach to uphold grammar in classrooms, and that’s where the problem is. The escalating problem is that students aren’t able to separate real writing from the way they text.
If only there was some way whereby students could differentiate between concise expressions and complex sentences, and not use concise expressions resembling marginalia in middle school yearbooks when quoting Shakespeare or Baudelaire, and worse when trying to translate that already distorted language into say, french. I wish there was some system by which they would write digitally in their private worlds, yet still write correct sentences when the need arose in class or for exams in English, french and other languages, the way foreign speakers – who speak their language at home with their kids and family in the USA – go to school and write ‘only’ in correct English when they move to the US. These students are able to separate the two and do both well, and often even perform better than an English speaker.
And I wish that social media users who accumulate likes etc would be as thrilled to correct their mistakes when educators return their compositions reddened with dis-likes of grammatical errors because YOLO in college!