The effects of txt

(Posted by Sandeep)

If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

Winston Weathers.

It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.


I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

(A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)