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Issue: Winter 2010

e-English is not the e-End

Ali Kayn


There are new villains in the fight against illiteracy and inelegant language. In the past the blame for poor communication skills, especially written skills, was tossed between school authorities (teaching methods and curricula) and parents (lack of involvement and poor reading habits). Today the blame is being assigned to an international community of bloggers and twitterers, and to the 'new' technologies that enable just about anyone to publish to the world without editors, proof-readers or fact-checkers.

The different technologies impose different limitations upon the authors, creating a range of electronic dialects with some crossover, each with its own jargon and syntax. SMS messages must be 160 characters or less, Twitter messages are restricted to 140. IRC users have been concerned that their messages might be monitored, and evolved alternative spelling and abbreviations to protect their content. Personal e-mails and chat room postings are frequently created with the emphasis on quick response rather than any due diligence; placing accuracy of content, presentation and grammar at the mercy of the gods of "Internet Time".

Is this the end of civilised English? "There is always a general hysteria about any language change." says Dr Jean Mulder. A member of the English Advisory Panel for the New National Curriculum, she assures us that "There will be a return to grammar teaching" for Australian K-12 students as the new curriculum comes into effect over the next few years.

She is confident that e-English is not having a dire effect on the quality of work she sees from students. "In practice students are developing an awareness of different types of English. Students are using different varieties in different contexts." The concept of using the appropriate language for the appropriate time is embedded in the new national curriculum. "What needs to be covered," she says, "is the whole notion of what is appropriate usage."

Drea Moore in his article Internet-Impact-On-Grammar writes, " The web is not compromising the ability of children to understand and utilize the rules of grammar. ... provided a child reads books and is taught grammar and spelling in school the Internet dialect need not impact formal writing." He warns that "the authority given the writer of each scenario corresponds to their use of the language."

Readers must learn to evaluate the thoughts and 'facts' presented to them in new media. In the past, great weight has been given to the written word over the spoken because there was an assumption that the cost of publication and the purchase price of printed books demanded and justified editorial commitment.

Says Professor David Crystal, "For the first time in centuries printed words are widely distributed without having been edited or proofread."

He is confident in SMS users and their English skills, writing in The Linguist that, "Although many texters like to be different and enjoy breaking linguistic rules, they also know the need to be understood."

"Texting has, indeed, added a new dimension to language use, but its long-term impact on the already existing varieties of language is negligible. It is not a disaster."

At the conference of the International English Language Testing System Crystal said "Kids have got to realise that in this day and age, standard English spelling is an absolute criterion of an educated background," he said.

Wall Street Journal career advisor, Toddi Gutner addressed the issue of poor spelling and grammar in business communications such as e-mail and reports in a piece entitled, Can Poor Spelling Derail a Career? In the business world, as in the academic world, poor spelling, grammar and presentation give a poor first impression, suggesting that the writer has paid poor attention to detail.

In Australia, job seekers who don't pay attention to the grammar and spelling in their applications do themselves a disservice."It doesn't matter whether you're applying for a role as a marketing manager or engineer; it's the quality of your written communication that gets you through the door. The initial assessment of your suitability for the role is based on your cover letter and resume. " says Phillip Guest Managing Director Australia and New Zealand, Michael Page International .

"Resumes with spelling errors and confusing content have little chance of being shortlisted. It doesn't matter whether the information is in hard copy or delivered via an online mechanism, the content needs to be concise and compelling if you want to stand out from the crowd. Anecdotally, we have had feedback from employers about SMS terms finding their way into online cover letters. People who use casual language or SMS abbreviations in (online cover letters or statements) do so at their own peril. The written communication needs to retain a professional tone irrespective of the technology used to deliver it."

English has been at the mercy of technology since Gutenberg. Content and context will decide where the languages of the world go from here. Ultimately, whether in business, academia or recreation the readership will decide.

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Ali Kayn
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See also: For more information on proposed curriculum changes, .

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