Can The English Language Survive E-Speak?

December 4, 2002

Most people use email now, and those of us in distance universities probably use it more than most. It was once thought that Email would come to replace regular postal mail, and to a large extent is has, but it differs from regular mail in sheer volume. Most people today receive far more emails than they ever received postal mail. Answering all of these mails has prompted the evolution of a new form of the English language – one that makes liberal use of abbreviated words, acronyms, truncated sentences, and other time saving techniques.

This writing style, which I call “?e-speak’, is generally sufficient to convey a simple message, and appropriate for use in mails that are intended for friends and casual associates, but unacceptable for messages intended for a formal audience. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have become so entrenched in email-speak that they can no longer remember how to write effectively without it.

What is worse, e-speak is beginning to infect written documents other than emails. Teachers across the continent have already begun to notice its slang-ridden roots taking hold in the literature produced in schools.

Florida teacher Tina Deamicis (see: notes that since the advent of instant messaging, “students are prone to use bizarre abbreviations and spellings: they don’t seem to make the distinction between casual and academic language.”

E-speak is becoming so entrenched in the language of teens, that some have unthinkingly begun to use “?abbreviated’ forms that are as long as the original word. Jacqueline Harding, an Illinois teacher, is puzzled by this (see: She sees a lot of Instant Messaging shortcuts in her class work, and deducts marks when it occurs. Some abbreviations make more sense than others: “I understand `cuz,'” says Harding, “but what’s with the `wuz’? It’s the same amount of letters as `was,’ so what’s the point?”

K12 students are not the only ones guilty of using e-speak in totally inappropriate forums, however. University papers are also becoming riddled with it, and lately I’ve noticed a preponderance of it in our own Voice newspaper. It’s difficult to read, and sometimes the meaning of a very thoughtful article is obscured beneath a bunch of amateurish Internet jargon.

The rules for writing well have not changed significantly in the past few decades. Grammar rules are a little looser, but most conventions remain intact.

There is no place for words with all capital letters in formal writing. In fact, this is even less acceptable now than it was prior to email. In Internet jargon, all-caps signify that the writer is “?yelling’, and it appears aggressive to the reader. Also, reading large portions of text in upper case is difficult on the eyes.

These days, people use capital letter, italics, underlines, quotation marks, boldface and dashes in order to signify that a particular word in a sentence is emphasized:

i.e. “Well, what do you think?

But, any good writing manual will tell you that such emphasis should be rarely used, if at all, and it certainly should not appear several times on a page. The emphasis should come from well-constructed sentences. When artificial emphasis is used, it is usually as a shortcut, or to clarify a sentence that is not very clear in the first place. Once in a while, every writer uses emphasis, but email has prompted people to begin using it everywhere.

Another, similar tactic is to use smiley or frown faces to make certain the reader knows your mood: a useful shortcut in a quick email, but in formal writing, sentences should not be ambiguous to begin with, and certainly should not be “?patched’ with an explanatory smiley.

The many punctuation marks in the English language have well defined uses, and to use them differently from how they are intended only confuses the reader. Especially confusing is the tendency to use multiple punctuation marks to convey extra emotion. I guess the theory is that a single exclamation mark cannot be sufficient to convey the levels of excitement attainable by modern people, so several must be used at once. Questions, too, must now be properly emphasized with a number of question marks proportional to the level of incredulity the writer is experiencing. When all else fails, there is always the excessive “?!?!” ending – often accompanied with the italic emphasis – to convey a state of bafflement heretofore unheard of in the experience of human existence. That has to be the reason people do this, right? Writers in the past only used one punctuation mark at a time, but clearly they could not have been signifying any emotion that is commensurate with those that modern readers might experience.

That was some pretty hefty sarcasm, by the way, but you might not have noticed due to my lack of artificial emphasis J.


It is difficult to understand why e-speak has had some such a detrimental effect on the written language. It is not like slang is new. I recall that when I was in high school, letters written to friends were loaded with the slang of the day: kinda; sorta; dunno; gonna; ain’t; U for you; 2 for two or to; like this, like that, like, like, like (we found a way to inject “?like’ into every sentence, it seemed); but I don’t recall ever using language like this in my school work, letters to older relatives, or any other formal writing.

Kids have always had their slang, but up until now most understood which words and spellings were best reserved for use with peers, and which constituted “?proper’ written English. Clearly it is not difficult to learn and distinguish between two different forms of writing, so I am baffled as to why email lingo seems to be posing such a threat to our language. Its impact has indeed been significant, however, and things are only getting worse.

Those who use e-speak in formal writing should beware: schools and universities are beginning to identify this writing style as a significant problem, and teachers and professors are starting to deduct very high percentages from papers that contain it. Write appropriately for each forum. Use e-speak in emails to friend and peers, but not to teachers, employers, and customer service departments. If you have a silly email handle like “?leather_baebe’ or “?thrilla_in_manilla’, set up a second email account for use in formal settings. And for goodness sake, remove your .sig file from formal messages if it contains anything other than your contact information. You can’t expect your professor, boss, editor or customer to take you seriously if you end your formal business mail with humorous quotations, links to beanie-baby collector’s sites, cute ascii pictures, or other extraneous data of interest only to you and your closest friends. Colorful stationery also makes a poor impression: trust me on this one.

Just because communications are electronic, does not mean that they are necessarily informal. Only the content and the intent of the document can determine the level of formality, so format appropriately and you will help ensure an appropriate response.

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