Is it any wonder the U.S. Postal Service just lost $1.9 billion in the second fiscal quarter? The age of handwritten letters, making their perishable crawl across the country to an awaiting lover’s mailbox, is over. In their place are heartfelt missives delivered instantly and electronically — a tender, “Luv u,” or the simple yet ethereal winky face. A pressing question emerges from this emotional wreckage: In migrating our lives to texting, does our grammar suffer to expediency?

Research has already shown that eliminating the complex typeface of script from lesson plans makes kids poorer readers. Now a growing body of research is investigating how text messages affect children’s ability to spell and use correct grammar. Most recently, a study from the University of Tasmania found that many of the common “violations” of standard written English, such as using “gonna” in place of “going to” or several exclamation points at a time, may not hurt these formal abilities all that much.

Indeed, this study breaks a long streak in academia to find texting has no impact on grammar and spelling. In 2012, researchers found the same link among American undergraduates between texting lingo, which they call “textism,” and measures of reading and spelling. Likewise, in 2008 and 2010, separates studies both confirmed the perversions of English found in text messages flood into young people’s formal application of the language.

Nenagh Kemp, senior lecturer and co-author of the most recent study, however, believes her team’s findings uphold texting as a positive predictor of language skills, so long as students can keep the two linguistic worlds separate from one another. “As long as young writers can maintain this awareness," explained Kemp, “then the violations of grammar common in digital communication need not be perceived as a reduction in writing skill, but rather as the addition of an alternative, casual style to the writer’s repertoire.”

For their most recent study, Kemp and her colleagues recruited 243 participants from elementary school, high school, and college. They asked each subject to fork over every single text message he or she had sent over the last two days, which the researchers analyzed for spelling or grammatical violations. (They specifically avoid the word “mistakes” because not all deviations from proper English are accidental.) The three most common violations were: omissions of capitalizations and punctuation, omission of entire words, and unconventional punctuation. Each participant also took a formal spelling and grammar test.

A year later, the team brought the subjects back for a follow-up set of tests. The results were mixed, although Kemp seems to skirt around the undesirable results. “Although omitting capitals and punctuation was associated with poorer later spelling in primary school,” she wrote, elementary and high school students did show a positive effect on later spelling and grammar tests. Among college-aged students, the standout effect was a deficiency in capitalization and punctuation. Overall, later tests showed a negative link between texting and so-called “orthographic choice,” otherwise known as proper grammar.

What could explain these findings? First, there’s a known gap between adolescents’ later abilities and those of college students. Eighteen to 21-year-olds are generally exposed to more high-level sources of standard written English, in both reading and writing, than a litter of 11-year-olds would be.

This would imply college students are better equipped to go back and forth without making many mistakes where it counts. But that flexibility didn’t emerge, most likely because, as Kemp openly admits, “young adults are no longer so interested in using their linguistic skills to play with written language in the casual format of texting.” While kids violate the rules with excessive punctuation (“OMG!!!”), adults were more likely to violate the rules through the omission of punctuation, such as periods and apostrophes. So it’s not necessarily the case that adults make fewer mistakes because of texting. They just make different mistakes.

“Their message writing style seems to be shaped by the expectations that they and their friends have about how text messages ‘should’ look, the self-correction functions of their phones, and the desire to include emotional expression in their messages,” Kemp wrote.

Unfortunately, if this relationship is true, the natural imperfection of cell phone technology means many text messages will be riddled with errors. Likewise, standard written English will also contain these errors. But even if children and young adults alike have difficulty discerning between textism and formal English, Kemp’s advocacy for awareness makes the most sense. Poor grammar and spelling aren’t viruses; if anything, they’re minor scrapes. It’s just up to teachers and parents — the linguistic healers, if you will — to let kids know they’re injured.

 

Source: Wood C, Kemp N, Waldron S. Exploring the longitudinal relationships between the use of grammar in text messaging and performance on grammatical tasks. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2014.