English survives e-chat

Josh Linehan

Sure, e-mail is an efficient way to ask a professor a quick question, keep in touch with high school friends or make plans for a drink at the end of the day.

But could the jargon-filled ether of cyber jottings – full of e.e. cummings-like disdain for punctuation and a mind-bending array of acronyms – do anything but hamper students’ writing?

LOL? Maybe not.

When e-mail became common on college campuses a little more than five years ago, conventional wisdom said papers subject to college-level grading would suffer.

Surely, years of writing using an immediate form with little attention to craft would cripple students when it came time to compose term papers and thoughtful essays.

In the beginning, at least, that conclusion was correct.

Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington, D.C., currently studies the impact of cell phones and e-mail on spoken and written language.

Prior to e-mail and cell phones, Baron said, students and CEOs alike would regularly compose error-filled e-mails.

Now, she says, much to the delight of English professors, the pendulum swings in the other direction.

“What’s happening now is people are attaching documents they edited or at least reread before they send because they realize it does become a part of the formal record,” Baron said. “You are held accountable and can even be ridiculed for sending out something shoddy.”

She traces this change to the simple spread of e-mail usage as well as programs such as AOL Instant Messenger. Increasingly, students see messageing programs as the free-for-all and e-mail as a more formal tool.

The widespread use of e-mail for official purposes reinforces this perception. Many professors accept assignments via e-mail. Interim University President Robert Bruininks – and Mark Yudof before him – routinely send out important administrative announcements in electronic form.

BTW, Bruininks recently sent such a system-wide e-mail. The subject? University e-mail and spam, of course.

Baron said performance doesn’t typically suffer, but she must accompany electronic assignments with a caveat that the finished product read like a paper rather than an e-mail.

“I tell them I don’t want them to just toss something off. And they typically do really well,” she said. “But they come in and complain as if they have writer’s cramp. They really feel a difference creating formal language in a form where they usually can be more relaxed.”

Though she stops short of attributing such improvement to e-mail, University professor Lillian Bridwell-Bowles, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing, said student writing is getting better.

“Fluency is the basis for good writing – the ability to use words quickly, creatively and easily,” Bridwell-Bowles said. “The degree to which one uses e-mail, it only increases that fluency.”

She cited myriad possible causes for the climbing quality of student prose, including the University’s increased admissions standards and a higher quality of writing on the Internet.

In addition, form issues such as grammar and punctuation can now be addressed with online resources, resulting in a possibly higher bar for such concerns.

But the bar isn’t always met.

“I hear a lot of complaints (from professors),” Bridwell-Bowles said. “Most people are very critical of grammar issues. They tend to focus on grammar issues.

“I see too many errors. But I also see better reasoning, better arguments and better questions being asked before the writing process begins,” she said.

Still, the staccato pace of e-mails and the lack of nuance in electronic prose leave gaps in many students’ writing.

FYI, Bridwell-Bowles stressed, students need to become better writers the old-fashioned way – by practicing and reading other good writing.

“E-mail tends to be a very basic narrative structure – what happened, what’s going to happen,” she said. “You also need to read a good deal of prose.”

Cheap, fast and easy, e-mail dominates the communication lives of millions. Electronic condolence cards are here, for instance, whether one believes they’re incredibly tacky or merely handy.

“The question is going to become how much writing people are going to do to each other and in what people use e-mail for,” Baron said.

As for whether a million cyber-monkeys will have equaled Shakespeare a million years hence?


Josh Linehan covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]