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Posts Tagged ‘texting’

Jason Dorsey, the Gen Y guy, thinks I have a problem. Okay, maybe not me personally. But still…

Dorsey delivered the keynote address for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) conference I attended as a presenter last week. Widely known and recognized for his insight into his generation, he’s a dynamic young man, and quite a speaker (though you’ll need a pretty high tolerance for his stand-up comedian schtick).

For the better part of 90 minutes, Jason poked some gentle fun at many of the differences between his generation and others, often by asking those of us in the audience to acknowledge our … ahem … anachronisms. There was a lot of hand raising and even more nervous tittering as people confessed to their outdated habits. Things like having a land line in your home. Offering up physical landmarks when trying to direct someone. And — here’s where it got personal — using apostrophes in your text messages. I raised my hand at that one, along with scores of others.

“Awwww,” Dorsey gushed, “that’s so cute.”

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. I’m not real big on being patronized. So the whole tone of his message already had me a bit on edge. Maybe I’m just not sure of my obligation to accommodate the tastes and habits of a younger and less-experienced generation in the workplace. Maybe some small part of me is fearful that the pace of change in more than I’m able to keep up with. Or maybe my reaction was just a part of my natural transformation into a grumpy old man.

But as someone who has made a living for more than two decades by using language deliberately and carefully, the notion that doing so should be looked upon as a quaint and outmoded practice just doesn’t strike me as sound thinking. To be fair, Dorsey wasn’t suggesting that punctuation doesn’t matter. He himself has authored a few books, and while I haven’t read them, I feel pretty confident that they are, in fact, punctuated. And he may well be right that apostrophes aren’t exactly necessary in text messages. After all, meaning can be translated without punctuation fairly easily, right? Let me put it this way:

i cld totally disregard grammar & usage in my posts, and youd still gt the message i wanted 2 get 2 you. wouldnt u? any writer can string words & symbols 2gether to convey meaning in tht way.

Here’s the deal, as least to my way of thinking. Language — and the way we use it — does more than simply convey meaning. It connotes something about the writer, as well. If I wrote all my posts as I did in the above example, you might reasonably draw some conclusions about the kind of person I am, for when we write,  readers make judgments about us and our message based on more than just our words. Their judgments are equally informed by the way we use our words. I understand that, for some, the use of capitalization and punctuation in text messages is a sure sign of a dinosaur at work. But at least it’s a careful, literate dinosaur.

Old habits die hard, and as a writer, it’s been my long-standing habit to choose my words and the way I structure them with both their denotative and connotative values in mind.  So if I’m reluctant to set aside the conventions of standard usage — even in a text message — does that make me old-fashioned? If I take that extra half-second to insert an apostrophe or capitalize a proper noun in my messages, does that make me cute — like some doddering old grandpa who has trouble figuring out how to save a contact on his cell phone?

Does all this mean I have an apostrophe problem?

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Every day they come. Usually three or more a day, substantially adding to the bulk of mail that gets stuffed in our curbside box. Some come in plain envelopes, some in gaudier expensive mailers. Some contain color-rich trifold brochures, others a simple letter on high-end stock. Each one makes a case for the uniqueness of what they offer, yet they are all remarkably similar — both to one another, and to every other direct mail offer we get. The difference is that these are all addressed to my son, who recently had the poor sense to do well on a standardized national test and thus open the floodgates of the college recruitment process.

Not so many years ago, I wrote these earnest pieces for a couple of different schools, and while I can’t say that I necessarily believed everything I wrote for those places, I did believe that somehow my words could capture a prospective student’s attention — at least enough for them to take a step to further the dialogue and thereby increase the volume of mail we sent them.

It’s a time-honored tradition in higher-ed marketing, this war of the mailboxes, and while it seems like an anachronism in this day and age — and schools are clearly moving on to newer technologies for recruiting — our daily mail provides ample evidence that it still works, or at least that old habits die hard.

All of these mailings conjure up images of the purity of intellectual pursuit set against the backdrop of meaningful personal relationships and a rich and vibrant social life. There’s usually a hint of ivy in there somewhere, too.

But tell me — is that what your college experience was like? Did it match up with the literature?

I’m grateful that I attended a small rigorous college but, despite the ivy and brick campus, my experience there hardly lived up to what I imagined it would be when I arrived as a freshman. I learned to think there — something I’d never thought would need to be taught. But I didn’t really learn much about what to think about. That came much, much later. Over the years, I’ve used that thinking skill again and again and again — far more than I recall ever using it while I was there, but I’ve sometimes struggled — and still do — with what exactly I should be thinking about.

Maybe that was just me, struggling with my own lassitude and uncertainty about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Surely today’s students — more driven, more connected, more accustomed to the advantages higher education offers — have a different experience, right?

Different? Yes. Better? Well …

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I’ve written a fair amount about words here, and about their power, but last night I was reminded of how much weight language can carry. Two words, the subject line of a text message to my cell phone at 8:17 PM. Two words that simultaneously alerted me to a current tragedy, and dredged up memories of an experience that no amount of words could adequately describe. Two words, as blunt and straightforward as the act which necessitated their use: campus murder.

No reasonable person would assume that, for those of us who lived through and with the tragedy of April 16, 2007, life would ever be the same. Yet, day in and day out, I’ve learned to perpetuate that illusion. I’ve become adept at the graceful sidestep. I taught myself to avoid the slippery slope that remembering those events forces me to traverse. There are, of course, moments when I must remember — when I visit with my friends who lost a daughter, when I have a casual conversation with the woman from my daughter’s Girl Scout troop who lost a husband, when I have a meeting in the alumni conference center, a beautiful facility that was overrun by more than 700 journalists during those days.

At other moments, I reflect more deliberately, walking slowly around the semi-circle of Hokie Stone markers outside the main administrative building on campus, each engraved with the name of one now gone. Or, as I did this morning, browsing through the memorial pages on the university’s web site. But these are moments I seek out, moments that I’ve learned to take in small doses the way one builds up an immunity to a pathogen by deliberate, controlled exposure.

The most troubling thing about last night was the chain reaction those two simple words triggered, a reaction both unwelcome and unbidden. And, of all the vestiges of April 16th, this is perhaps the one that plagues me the most. Those events marked me. They changed my psyche, permanently and indelibly, and changed it in such a way that even these two unrelated and vastly different events are linked. They changed me in such a way that those two words, texted to my cell phone last night, pulled past events forward into the present, and invested present events with a weight and sadness far beyond their measure.

A few moments ago, an emergency vehicle sped through the intersection just outside my office window, sirens blaring, and my attention was drawn from my own here-and-now to what might have happened somewhere else. And in those moments, I began to imagine, again, the worst. It’s a foolish reaction, and one that, thankfully, passes quickly. But it’s one that I’ve come to recognize, one that I would gladly never have again, and one that brings to mind two more words that I hope one day to use with conviction.

Enough. Already.

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If u cn rd ths …

“if u cn rd ths…”

Here’s a sort of generational litmus test: when you read that, what do you think of?

Many years ago, that phrase was the headline for a series of print ads promoting a correspondence course in shorthand. Sometimes you’d see the same ad on matchbooks. The idea was, of course, that you could earn a living if you learned how to efficiently transcribe the thoughts of others. The ad concluded with something like “… u cn gt a gd jb w/hi py.”

If that logic held true today, imagine all the people who would have gd jbs w/hi py. Of course, most of them would be teenagers. I’ll let you mull over the implications of that.

This is not an old man’s rant about texting. On the contrary, I think texting is nearly a perfect match between language and purpose. If all I want to do is tell you my wife that I’m trapped in a meeting, it makes perfect sense to text her — “trpd in mtg l8 fr dnr.” I don’t need to expound. I don’t need to provide context. I don’t need to write her a love letter, though I’m sure that would be more worthwhile than the meeting.

Educators have been debating for some time about where this development is heading and what, if anything, should be done to stop its spread, though I think it’s not beyond the imagination that at least some of that debate is carried out by tousled intellectuals hunched over BlackBerries, thumbs ablazing.

In the end, whether we care about it or not, there’s probably not much to be done. Our language is, for better or worse, malleable. Words and styles are introduced, adapted, and abandoned all the time. You’re to blame, as am I. At least you are if you’ve ever used any of these words. Still, I hate the thought, as yesterday’s post discussed, that our devaluation of language will continue. Because if it does, I’ll not only have to learn to accept text message abbreviations in formal documents, just as I’m having to accept all this gratuitous capitalization I see, I’ll have to learn — OMG!!!! — to use them as well.

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