Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Age-Related Texting Disorder

Recently I was alerted via a Facebook friend to this post on the page Dope-A-Meme, in which the author was commenting on the very different interpretations that young people give to an ellipsis in a text:


I’m with Mom on this one; I don’t see (or feel) anything in her text to suggest that she is less than enthusiastic. The post points up an age-old language problem that is, unsurprisingly, manifesting itself in a relatively new medium. Just as there can be a disconnect between intention and interpretation in other more traditional communication channels, the same thing can happen in texting, and the disconnect may well occur for some of the same reasons: differences in background, age, education, or social standing between the parties to the conversation.

I’ll come right out as a sexagenarian, by way of disclosure and to contextualize my perspective in what follows. I learned cursive handwriting in grade school (penmanship was actually a subject), and I learned to type on a typewriter in high school. I was in my 30s when I acquired my first personal computer, in my 50s when I got my first smartphone. So texting is the latest, perhaps the last in a series of written communication platforms I have tried to master.

I came to texting a bit reluctantly, like many of my peers, but I now embrace it enthusiastically as an efficient means of communication for many purposes. But I apply some limits that surely separate me from younger generations. I don’t, for example, believe texting is at all efficient for any long-form communication. If I have more to impart than can be set out in a few lines, I make a phone call or send an email. After three or four exchanges with someone via text before a minute has passed, I ask myself: why aren’t we just talking?

Writers have been opining for some time about the gap in understanding between young and old that may result from putting a period at the end of a text. Max-Harrison Caldwell, writing in the New York Times, has a nice survey article about the phenomenon (in which he quotes former VT editor Ben Zimmer). In this case, I have come over to the side of the youngsters and I am now indifferent about ending texts with a period. I may or may not do it, and I no longer take into account who’s on the other end of the conversation in settling on my punctuation. Why? As Caldwell observes, it’s in the spirit of texting (which aims at maxing communicative effectiveness while minimizing character count) to keep it short and sweet. The “send” icon, unless you tap it accidentally, effectively signals the end of a text. You don’t need to double up with the period doing the same job.

Back in March I wrote about some other features of new technologies and how they affect messaging. Emojis, not surprisingly, were part of the conversation. These I still find a bit problematic in texting, partly because my phone’s technology for using them is clunky, and partly because their use in texts that I receive often seems lazy, obscure, or ambiguous. What is the point of communicating in this streamlined way if clarity is sacrificed?

Take, for example, this text from my cousin (10 years younger than me), which came at the end of a couple of exchanges:

I am mystified by the paws. What does she mean and does she mean anything? I know she has several chihuahuas. Are they trampling her? Has she set off to track a wild animal in the woods? I could have inquired. I suppose I could have responded succinctly with something like 🐾? But this would have required me to scroll through pages of emojis on my phone, looking for the actual paw print (since it did not appear in the opening screen of my most recently used emojis).

Texting has given rise to a lot of innovation in informal English and I expect that much of this is embraced more enthusiastically by the younger than the older. By now we’re all familiar with initialisms that are frequent in texts and tweets that reduce a three- or four-word phrase — often a disjunctive adverbial phrase — to its initials: BTW (by the way), FWIW (for what it’s worth), IDK (I don’t know), LOL, OMG, and the like.

These are handy if they condense a phrase that you would be using anyway in speech or if you were typing a formal letter. They’re irritating (to this old wheezer, anyway) when they’re used insincerely or indiscriminately. My special peeves in this area are LOL and ROFL because I don’t think users of these are in fact engaged in their expansions (laughing out loud, rolling on the floor laughing) when they use them. I am guilty of using OMG much more frequently in texts than I ever did in writing before the shorthand version came along. It’s problematic to spell out the designation of the Supreme Being if you’re on the fence about their existence, but it’s not so bad to reduce them to a single letter. And I suppose you could argue that OMG stands for Oh My Gosh!

Newly come to my attention is another initialism, NGL: Not Gonna Lie. It’s usually used in humorous contexts, and while I can appreciate its use by young upstarts, it won’t be appearing in any texts from me. It’s even more egregious than TBH (to be honest). Don’t you automatically raise a red flag over your head when you preface a remark with an assurance about your honesty? Doesn’t it cast into doubt anything that you’ve ever said without the preface?

The ability to add an image, GIF, or video to a text became available early in this century. We all take it for granted now — so much so that we may well send “texts” that do not actually include any text, the message consisting entirely of images and/or emojis. I have received many such messages and you probably have as well.Do you send such messages too? I don’t; I still like to think of the graphic component of a text, if I include one, as illustrating or expanding on the text.

My life-long association with writing is that it’s a tool to create an experience in another person’s mind. I have always fancied that as a writer you have some control over that experience. But when you send an image, especially a good-quality photo that the recipient can zoom in on and inspect, then you have no idea what experience you’re creating on the other end—and that seems to subvert the motive for sending a message!

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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