When Is Poor Punctuation Okay?
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"It wz d best of tImz, it wz d worst of tImz, it wz d age of wisdom, it wz d age of foolishness." If Charles Dickens' classic first line had read like this, it's unlikely that many people would still know who he is. And Winnie-the-Pooh wouldn't be quite the same as if he was "comin downstairs nw, bump, bump, bump, on d bak of Hs hed, Bhind Christopher Robin." The classics obviously weren't written using the informal style and punctuation used in text messaging and on social network sites, but a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that this type of communication has crept into the schoolwork of American teens.
According to the study, Writing,Technology and Teens, co-sponsored by the College Board's National Commission on Writing, about half of the teenagers surveyed admitted to using informal writing styles instead of correct capitalization and punctuation in schoolwork. A quarter of them jazzed up their papers with emoticons and abbreviations. On the whole, though, the results were better than most parents and teachers would have anticipated. The study discovered that teenagers don't tend to see e-communication as "real" writing and are not only able, but willing to conform to more formal standards for school assignments.
Professor Harvey Kail, director of the Writing Center at the University of Maine, sees the trend as a way to work on one of the key elements of writing instruction--revision. "Get students to do a draft," he says. "Don't press them to think about the mechanical issues on the first draft; get them to think about more global issues like how are things organized--what's the main idea, what's your evidence, are these ideas coherent and do they connect up--and then save the mechanical issues for the final edit and proofread."
Revision as a writing concept certainly isn't new and definitely predates text messaging. We teach kids to improve upon and not use rough drafts as a final product. That's why, according to Kail, if students choose to flood their drafts with chat-speak and smiley faces, it's not that big a deal. He points out that overloading students with feedback about punctuation issues in a first draft doesn't make a whole lot of sense if the sentence may be cut from the final paper anyway. After all, it's that final draft that matters.
Some educators are worried about text speak devaluing the written word, but many are like Kail and feel it's simply another teaching opportunity. Interestingly enough, the students in the study agreed that writing was an area in which they needed more instruction. Over 80 percent of the participants felt that a more writing-intensive curriculum would improve their writing skills, which shows that students are able to make the distinction between academic and social writing.
That doesn't mean, however, that e-communication isn't changing things. Our expectations for one, and the value of different types of media, for another. With many people able to write email as quickly as they can talk, messages take on a more personalized tone and editing for capitalization and punctuation can take away from the overall value of that message.
While it may not be in a final draft, poor punctuation does, it seems, have a place in this new-age writing world. In this regard, students, the study and Kail are in agreement: that's what e-communication is designed for and the audience doesn't always make a difference. Many classes use bulletin boards as a way of communicating about homework and many teachers give out their email addresses to students as a way to encourage communication. That's why, according to experts, it's important to let some things slide.
"If I'm getting a message on a bulletin board from a student or in email and they misused a comma or a semi-colon or forgot to capitalize, I don't make a big deal about that as long as I can understand what they're talking about," states Kail. In other words, if they're writing, let them write!
In the end, Winnie-the-Pooh might just be the authority to turn to. He is the one who told us, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?'.”
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