Instant messaging is not a spoiler of syntax in youth, says U of T researcher

Date published: 2008-02-25 12:59:51 PM

Here's a word to the wise (AWTTW): Instant messaging (IM), which is often riddled with acronyms like LOL (laugh out loud) and TTYL (talk to you later), is not the spoiler of syntax that some think it is but rather "an expansive new linguistic renaissance," suggests a new study.

"It isn't this ruinous devastation of English grammar," says Sali Tagliamonte, the study's lead researcher and associate professor at U of T's Department of Linguistics.

"When you look at the total number of words these kids are using in the full spectrum of their communication, these types of features represent
a . . . rare subset of their communication."

Tagliamonte, a mother of four, embarked on the study after seeing her own children spend lengthy periods of time online, instant messaging with their friends.

She recruited several teenagers from U of T's Mentorship Program to be her assistant researchers and obtain the archived online instant messaging conversations of 71 youths between the ages of 15 and 20.

They found that IM linguistic shorthand, like LOL, TTYL, and emotional text language like 'ha, ha' and 'argh' represented just 2.4 per cent of the words in the IM corpora.

"So they're really not as widespread as one would believe," says Derek Denis, Tagliamonte's student researcher who was given a scholarship to work on the project.

Tagliamonte and Denis also conducted one-on-one interviews with 30 of the participants and recorded and transcribed the conversations so they could compare the speech patterns to those of the text messages.

Researchers focused on four features of verbal grammar in youths: intensifiers such as "that's so cool," the future system such as "the show tonight is going to be fun," quotatives such as "he was like, 'oh hi"' and deontic modality, such as "I have to go to work."

"What we found is that kids are using the colloquial vernacular language but they're also using this formal language that isn't used in speech," says Denis, 21.

"So it's really a combination, a fusion of both these styles. It wasn't surprising to me because I'm a user of instant messaging and . . . I knew that it wasn't as bad as people say it is."

Tagliamonte says participants would use different levels of diction, both informal and formal, in their speech. For instance, they'd use 'shall' alongside words such as 'gonna.'

"It shows that this generation of kids is fluidly moving through media of communication that just didn't exist before and they're doing it extremely well," she says.

Sali Tagliamonte’s research on linguistic changes in Canada is funded through SSHRC's Standard Research Grants program.

Published with permission from Canadian Press.