Nice to see another member of the SBHS Class of 1986 having his say on The 7.30 Report last night: Greenpeace energy campaigner Ben Pearson. Back then there were plenty of people wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about the alarming decline in literacy standards, as there were in 1976 and 1966 (see my What is Literacy?) and in 1786 or 1686 it appears, to judge from Chapter 15 of David Crystal’s Stories of English (Penguin edition 2005), a book I recommend to anyone wanting really to be informed on the subject. (Do note my carefully unsplit infinitive there.)
The latest scary English teachers story started in New Zealand, and like most stories of the kind is conspicuous for its contempt for context even while actually revealing that context: Txt speak approved for exams.
Secondary school students will be able to use text speak in written examinations this year, legitimising a language loved by teenagers.
The move has divided students and educators amid concerns the move could damage the English language.
The second language of thousands of teenagers, text language usually incorporates abbreviated words and phrases such as txt for “text”, lol for “laugh out loud” or “lots of love” and CU for “see you”.
The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is still strongly discouraging students from using anything other than full English, but says credit will be given if the answer “clearly shows the required understanding”, even if it contains text speak.
The authority’s deputy chief executive, qualifications, Bali Haque, said students should aim to make their answers as clear as possible.
“Markers involved in assessing NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) exams are trained professionals, experienced in interpreting the variety of writing styles and language uses encountered during the marking process,” he said. Haque said he was confident markers would understand answers written in text speak. He stressed that in some exams, including English, where the marking schedule specifically required candidates to demonstrate good language use, text abbreviations would be penalised…
Even with that caveat, the responses were predictable: “This disgusts me. Are we encouraging our young people to be stupid and lazy? I cannot fathom how anybody could have come up with this decision in the first place, let alone actually have support for it.” And so on.
Already here in NSW it is OK in the hothouse environment of a 40 minute first (and only) draft HSC response for students to abbreviate a little: for example, in writing about the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead it is acceptable to write “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (R & G) takes the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and…”, thereafter saving time by using the short form of that rather long play title, which must be written in full at first mention, however. I would regard the study of text/SMS language to be a valid study in the context of exploring register and dialect variation, as part of a wider course on English language in use. The question of what variety of English is appropriate to specific situations and purposes would be (and is) central to such study. Recent grammars of English, a really good example being the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad and Geoffrey Leech (2002), take note of such varieties of English and explain them. See also Online English Grammar.
It is time I revised my page Can you recommend a good online site on English Usage? [Since done, and moved to WordPress; the link takes you to that version.] My new “standard” is the wonderful Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Macquarie University’s Pam Peters. I still recommend the latest “Fowler”, and the most scholarly of all is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. You will find some good online pundits on that page of mine.
Yes, I might be a “scary English teacher”, but I still care about accuracy and appropriateness in English language use, and I always have. On the other hand, I despair at the ignorance that so often surrounds such discussion in the public arena. Still, I suppose my mission in life has been to dispel such ignorance; what an elitist bastard I really am, eh!