Students Can Still Write?

Students Can Still Write?

In writing, Colby students juggle multiple voices in different environments

By Stephen Collins '74
Illustrations by Robert P. Hernandez

Around the turn of the 21st century, reports of instant-message abbreviations and emoticons insinuating themselves into school papers horrified grammar traditionalists. (OMG!) 

“Some teachers see the creeping abbreviations as part of a continuing assault on formal written English,” Jennifer 8. Lee wrote in the New York Times in 2002. “Others take it more lightly, saying that it is just part of a larger arc of language evolution.”

What’s the word (or the text-message contraction) on Mayflower Hill today? As the new decade begins, have the dire predictions come true? Have IM, texts, and social networking sites really undermined students’ abilities to write a persuasive essay, a cogent lab report, or a good research paper?

Not really, professors and peer writing tutors agree. This is not to say the problem doesn’t exist in high schools (which is what Lee was writing about) or that students’ grammar is perfect. But Assistant Professor of English Paula Harrington reports that students intuitively understand a broad range of writing environments that require different levels of formality, and they do a good job adapting.

“It’s all about audience,” said Harrington, who directs the Farnham Writers’ Center. “It’s not that they should write perfectly all the time, it’s that they should figure out who they’re writing for, and they should have appropriate language for the context.”

If anything, informality is somewhere well down a list of pet peeves. The top of the list? Overly formal, pretentious language that some students tend to sling around thinking it sounds academic.

Adan Hussain ’11, a Writers’ Center tutor and a math major, said, “People can separate the many different voices they take on during their day. I don’t find text jargon within a paper.” In brainstorming and outlining, text abbreviations can be useful, but students rarely let them migrate beyond a first draft, he said.

Granted she’s a writing tutor, but Coline Delaporte ’11 said in an interview that she even proofreads some e-mail. “It matters to whom you’re writing.” [’Nuff said.]

Asked (by this white-haired editor) about proper grammar and style in academic writing, Hussain saw the challenge from another side. “There’s a right and a wrong way to talk through text messaging,” he said. “People find it strange when I use caps on text messages or add in periods sometimes.” But it’s not that simple. “Even text messaging is different from instant messaging online.”

Case in point: Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, told a story on the Moth Radio Hour about adopting the “LOL” from his son’s texts. Gopnik used the abbreviation at the end of every message thinking it meant “lots of love” (rather than “laughing out loud”). This led to unfortunate constructions to family members, like, “Sorry about your cancer. LOL.”
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  • On February 4, 2010, Nancy wrote:
    Nice job, Steve. I've been thinking about this topic!