Stupid Tuesday questions, Strunk and White edition

I have misgivings about Twitter and text messages.

I have seen many misgivings about social media expressed in various forums.  They often deal in some way with how these new modes of communication and interaction are insidiously taking over our lives, turning us into screen-staring zombies at the expense of our meatspace communities and relationships.  I am not saying these concerns are unfounded or that the people who raise them are misguided.  But those are not the misgivings that I am talking about.

I am talking about how the character limit on Twitter forces me to truncate normal syntax and limit punctuation marks.  I am referring to the unsettling reality that, when I see texts that say “see u later,” I am seeing the accepted norm expressing itself.  When I compose texts that are invariably complete sentences, replete with punctuation marks and subordinate clauses and such and so forth, I realize I am doing it wrong.  The people who text like they’re Prince circa 1991 are using the mode as intended.  When I, obsessively, text a correction when autocorrect swaps in something crazy, I’m probably being annoying since I am sure the recipient could have figured it out without my help.

[Aside: Friends who work on the autocorrect programming, please understand something.  Nobody intends to say “ducking.”  We mean to say a different, naughtier word.  On those rare instances when I send a text using that word to indicate annoyance (I only ever use it in texts for that purpose), it is ducking irritating to have to go back and retype what I really meant to say.  Stop it.]

How wrong am I?  According to The New Republic , very wrong indeed.

The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it’s started getting angry. I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats, where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.”

Or, as I saw it expressed on Twitter somewhere, my scrupulous punctuation is the text message equivalent of bitchy resting face.

So not only must I accept texts and Tweets comprising punctuation-free collections of letters and numerals where words ought to be, by not doing so myself I am inadvertently communicating ill feelings.  It is I who should change, and in the direction of sloppy-seeming “sentence” construction.

Blargh.

Needless to say, this whole thing has Millicent in one hell of a swivet.  But as stoutly as be plants herself athwart history, crying “stopped this at once!” in perfectly clipped received pronunciation and brandishing her brolly as menacingly as possible, even she has to know when she is fighting a losing battle.  Best to have a rest with an extra-large glass of consoling sherry.

So that’s this week’s (slightly tardy) Question — how has society moved on, leaving you adrift and bereft where once you felt confident and at home?  What new thing must you accept, despite liking the older way a bit better?  In what manner have you realized how outmoded you are?

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64 thoughts on “Stupid Tuesday questions, Strunk and White edition

  1. I’d proffer an answer but the OP so perfectly encapsulates the immediate signal of my advancing obsolescence: my very unfashionable insistence upon using some semblance of textbook-standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation in written expression.

    Worse, my understanding of my cell phone is that it is a device intended to be used principally for voice communication. I have also been known to read a physical book or magazine from time to time, rather than an electronic one on my Kindle or iPad. And I still purchase and use compact discs. (I know. Just wheel me out to the old folks’ home now before I hit fifty.)

    I still think “dude” is a fundamentally masculine pronoun. When I hear women refer to one another as “dude,” I am taken aback. The younger women in my office do this when they are being jocular with one another. I disapprove of their sweat pants that have adjectives embroidered on the asses. I was happier before I knew that my receptionist’s butt is “juicy.”

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      • Generally, if people are calling me, it’s not to chat, but to impart some information. I’d much rather a text or an email that I can check at a convenient time, and that I can refer back to later.

        When it has to do with work, I really hate it when someone insists on calling instead of emailing. It generally means: (a) they’re too lazy to type something, and want you to do it instead; or (b) they don’t want a paper trail of what they’re about to tell you so that they can’t get in trouble.

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      • A friend who’s slightly older than me (hence older than either Burt or Russell) says that texting is “a very civilized form of communication.” I have to agree. I have always disliked talking on the phone. And daughter #1 is even worse than me at talking on the phone. So thank god she normally texts me when it’s time to be picked up from swim practice or whatever other event she has going on in her busy life.

        Talking is overrated. Writing is good. And as e.e. cummings taught us, even short ungrammatical writing can also be very good, in the hands of an artist.

        That said, I don’t tweet and won’t. I don’t Facebook, and I don’t do Linked-in. Social media in general makes me feel old and out of touch, and increasingly I find I like that feeling.

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      • I’m a *horrible* phone talker, in the sense that I really don’t like it (which is weird, given that I used to be a call-center customer service rep, but that was different….it was a job and I was paid for it and I didn’t have to do it at home). But I don’t like texting either. Aaargh, kids these days!

        Like James, I don’t, and won’t, do Twitter. There are some reasonably smart people I know who have twitter feeds, and when every once in a while I read them, they sound like childish sloganeers.

        I do Facebook, but reluctantly. If I recall correctly, I’ve made only 1 post there and commented on others’ only a handful of times. Mostly it’s just to keep in touch with my family, and some people use it for email.

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    • I do not care for texting, though I cannot say why.

      You can have my CDs when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I like albums. I like album art. I like when they come with a nice booklet, containing lyrics or pictures or whatever. If I am going to pay for music, I would prefer to have the physical media.

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  2. Twitter’s very existence is the world leaving me behind. I cannot keep up with it, and its mores, memes, and constantly evolving slang. I will often read someone’s tweet, find it well nigh incomprehensible, then turn to my girlfriend, who spends a lot of time on Twitter both for personal and work reasons, and ask, “What the hell does this say?!” She’ll usually give me a very obvious translation into the ancient English that I speak, at which point I will feel old and stupid.

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    • Amen to this, when I first heard of Twitter I was like “who the hell wants to use this thing? You can’t tell anyone anything with that many characters.”

      I don’t follow anything on Twitter. I don’t anticipate starting. I’m gonna wait for the next fad.

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      • Twitter can be genuinely enjoyable, informative, and hilarious. Twitter is not a great place to have long, drawn-out conversations, but it’s not meant for that.

        My problem in being able to follow Twitter — and this is my problem, not Twitter’s — is that it moves so fast that it’s basically like culture on fast forward (X16). Something that happened yesterday might as well have happened a year ago, and something that happened a year ago? Might has well have been in the Middle Ages. If I go several days in a row without looking through my Twitter feed, I will find myself lost.

        And the slang really does seem to evolve quite quickly. Part of this is that the medium seems to facilitate rapid linguistic change. One progression I frequently see is a meme becoming so popular that it turns into a slang word or phrase that can be used to reference things completely unrelated to the original meme. Right now I’m very worried that this will happen with “Sharkeisha.”

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      • I enjoy Twitter, too. It’s especially useful for fast-breaking news updates (I checked in obsessively in the car when SCOTUS was scheduled to hand down its DOMA ruling) (I wasn’t driving), for amusing/interesting commentary on live events, etc. Some of the jokes and memes can be really funny. (I remember one I really liked from election night last year, #electioncocktails or something similar. My contribution was The McCain, which consisted of an entire bottle of bitters.)

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  3. The comparison to bitchy resting face is interesting.

    The lesson behind the phenomenon of bitchy resting face is that you shouldn’t call someone a bitch just because they don’t look totally super happy all the fucking time. It is not that people with BRF should change to look more Katie Couric every damned minute of the day.

    So, using a comparison of bitchy resting face to malign the use of the actual English language means one’s approach to bitchy resting face is completely bollocksed up.

    By the way, I’ve totally embraced my bitchy resting face (and have for decades), as well as my pedantic adherence to language (well, most of the time). A year or so ago, a co-worker was coming back from vacation, and we decided to make a banner for him (well, I decided). Being a part of the writing department, the signread, “Welcome Back, Dan!” He appreciated the use of the comma, and knew automatically that I was the one who wrote it.

    To the question, when the hell did we decide to capitalize the “i” in Internet. I swear to God we didn’t do that back in the ’90s. It looks stupid. It’s not a person or a friggin’ country.

    [shakes fist at cloud]

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  4. Like Chris, I am completely at loss with Twitter and a lot of other social media. I see the usefullness in facebook and it helped me get my current girlfriend (long story). However, Twitter is odd. I don’t understand how writers and others use it to build their brands. It sometimes seems that people do nothing all day but go back and forth on twitter and this gets reported on Slate and The Atlantic Wire.

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  5. Most Memes are also at a loss on me. I am often a bit anti-meme because it seems like examples of every rallying the base and talking past each other and willfully misunderstanding each other.

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  6. My answer is probably the same as yours, Russell, though I worry about it on a larger scale.

    When I wrote my MRM post, I got three different criticisms of the piece flowing into my email box for a few weeks. The second highest number of critical emails (from MRMs) complained that I was a total “mangina” and a traitor to my sex. The third highest number of critical emails (from feminists) complained that I was a troglodyte for being willing to try to understand MRMs rather than simply condemning them as eeevil.

    But the number one criticism I received? The post was too long — because you couldn’t read it in under two minutes — and so people couldn’t get to the end of it, even though they wanted to be able to read the whole thing. People (hundreds of them!) actually took the time to email me because they were angry that I had written a piece they wanted to read but couldn’t, because apparently people can’t read for more than five minutes before losing consciousness or whatever these days.

    I also saw this article yesterday, thanks to Andrew Sullivan, which had this quote:

    “The [New York] Times Magazine, although it has tried to add modern details, still seems old fashioned, page after page of type. It needs to be read and that seems, I believe to almost everybody, exhausting.”

    And that’s from a freaking journalist.

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  7. honestly, i still don’t like cell phones. anything about them. except PERHAPS a few lovely texts I have received from certain individuals that bear contextual significance. and even those, i would jettison in a minute if it meant we all quit using cell phones tomorrow.

    (note: i don’t actually expect that to happen IN ANY UNIVERSE. I just wouldn’t mind. really the only tech I feel that way about.)

    The slide from phone-ish cell phones —> tablet-ish cell phones should, in theory, cheer me up, since I like tablets just fine, but so far it hasn’t.

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  8. I don’t mind Twitter and texting conventions in their natural habitat, but I can’t stand it when someone sends me a normal email using the same silly abbreviations (though my irritation lessens if there’s a “sent from my [mobile]” apology at the end). Those things especially drive me up a wall in business emails, and the steam comes pouring out of my ears when I see that one of my colleagues has used them in an email to a client.

    On a different note, my daughter hates it when I use the typical abbreviations in my texts to her, although she’s fine with her friends doing the same. Apparently I do it with a geezer accent.

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  9. I still write all my emails — be they to drunken college roommates or prospective employers — as if I’m writing a term paper.

    I understand if people are less formal in their personal correspondences. But I have high-powered professional parents and my boss (!!!) send me Twitter-esque emails on work related matters.

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    • I do that, too. And I proofread every damn one of them, and often don’t hit send until my third or fourth version. But I figure in my position I need to do that just to demonstrate professionalism. When I get a badly written email from a colleague, it definitely influences my opinion of them.

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  10. people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.”

    Can someone please explain that to me?

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  11. I was born in September 1980 and feel very antiquated even though I should not. Like ND, social media is beyond me. When texting, I tend to use complete sentences rather than internet speak. I never sent a tweet in my life. Socially, I feel isolated from modern dating practices and completely unsuited for the present-day courtship scene. Everybody seems to be adapting better and I feel like an old man before my time.

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    • I often use full sentences and proper punctuation when I text. This bugged my daughter because she felt compelled to respond in kind. Were she a bad writer I might have kept up the pressure, but she is a very good writer who readily recognizes that texting style is distinct from the style appropriate in other communication. I liken this to languages that have different forms dependent on the social context, and what matters is to use the appropriate for in the appropriate context. I also recognize that even educated writing in English of a couple centuries ago was less fixed in terms of spelling and punctuation than is what we consider “proper” today. So while I mostly still text in full sentences, etc., I will allow myself to get sloppy sometimes, and told my daughter to not worry about what I think of her texting style, but to realize I’m just an old stick-in-the-mud in some ways.

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  12. Here’s a secret. If you don’t want to text like a teenager, you don’t have to. Nobody’s forcing you to omit periods or to type as though a late freeze decimated this year’s vowel crop. I use proper punctuation in text messages all the time. Increasingly, so do my younger friends. I wish I could take credit and say that they’ve absorbed my good habits. But I suspect the truth is that they’re just growing up.

    When people read your tweets and text messages, a period doesn’t communicate “this person is angry”–it communicates “this person gives a damn about punctuation.” That someone would read a passive aggressive tone into a punctuated sentence indicates that this someone is either a drama magnet, or one who spends most of their time communicating with drama magnets.

    That said, the whole business of reading the emotional subtext of text messages rather points to their limited usefulness as a method of communication. A phone call would make it quite clear whether or not the period-user intended their punctuation to indicate a frosty tone.

    Also, watch this.

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  13. I think Twitter’s character limit is actually a sign of Twitter’s obsolescence, not yours or mine. When was the last time you exchanged text messages longer than 140 characters, and they were not seamlessly reassembled into a single coherently presented message? Texting software is evolving to meet the needs of people who type complete sentences – it wouldn’t be doing that if we were vanishing relics, confused and trying to figure out where to affix the stamps to our phones’ screens.

    My own experience is that complete words and properly punctuated sentences are the rule rather than the exception – I had a look through my phone, and found no one I have recently exchanged texts with uses forms like “C U” for “see you”. I can only think of a handful of people I have ever exchanged texts with who use those extreme abbreviations.

    The style is certainly conversational (“lots of carrots if you want em.” for “There are lots of carrots if you want them.”). Periods appear to be for separating sentences, rather than ending them – the final period of a text message is implied, so punctuating the last sentence is only mandatory if you want a ! or ? or … – but sentences do call for explicit separation.

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  14. “So not only must I accept texts and Tweets comprising punctuation-free collections of letters and numerals where words ought to be, by not doing so myself I am inadvertently communicating ill feelings. It is I who should change, and in the direction of sloppy-seeming “sentence” construction.

    Blargh.”

    Damn straight. I’ll make certain allowances for texting because trying to get the apostrophe in my contractions can be a bit difficult on my phone, but i generally use full words. If anyone complains about the way I text, they can kiss my ass. If you can’t make yourself understood by the intended rerceipient, you’re “doing it wrong”.

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