Technology Blamed For Bad Grammar Despite Total Lack Of Causal Evidence

from the wow dept

We were just recently reporting on yet another in a very long line of studies that showed that instant messaging and texting was actually helping kids have better writing skills. So, it was interesting to see an article published up in Canada (thanks to Marcus Carab for sending this in) that claimed a study “proving” that Twitter and texting was causing grammar and spelling problems for students. But, if you read the details of the article, they don’t say that at all. It’s entirely made up by the reporter. It’s done with a neat little rhetorical trick. The title of the article says:

Students failing because of Twitter, texting

Okay, fair enough. Let’s see the details of how Twitter and texting are leading students to fail.

The opening paragraph is:

Little or no grammar teaching, cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, all are being blamed for an increasingly unacceptable number of post-secondary students who can’t write properly.

First note that the reporter combines “little or no grammar teaching” with “cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter,” even though those are very, very different issues. Onto the next few paragraphs, where the rhetorical “switch” is pulled:

For years there’s been a flood of anecdotal complaints from professors about what they say is the wretched state of English grammar coming from some of their students.

Now there seems to be some solid evidence.

Ontario’s Waterloo University is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require the students they accept to pass an exam testing their English language skills.

Almost a third of those students are failing.

Now, if you’re not reading carefully, you might think this claimed that there was “proof” that texting or social networking sites were leading students to fail. But that’s not what’s being said at all. The only “proof” is a study showing that students aren’t doing well on a particular grammar test. It presents no evidence as to why. It also presents no evidence that suggests that it’s any worse than at any time in the past, since it doesn’t present any historical comparison at all. It just says a bunch of students are failing and blames texting and Twitter, despite all those actual studies that say the opposite.

Nowhere else in the article does it present any evidence at all that texting or Twittering has anything to do with the grammar skills of students. Instead, there are a few people who suggest the real problem was that first one listed: the lack of any grammar instruction in high schools. But, I guess that doesn’t make a very good headline or opening of an article.

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Comments on “Technology Blamed For Bad Grammar Despite Total Lack Of Causal Evidence”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

The thing that drives me insane is how easy this is, because people just want to believe it. I am constantly showing people the past studies showing grammar is improving, and imploring them to acknowledge that at the very least those studies demonstrate that this issue is not as simple as it seems. And yet, nine times out of ten, the response I get is “well that’s stupid, because obviously kids’ grammar is getting worse.”

These aren’t keep-of-the-grassers either, these are people in their twenties who themselves use Facebook and Twitter regularly. Most of them use their fair share of LOLs and emoticons and “cuz” and all that… and yet they all seem to believe that they are the only ones smart enough to do so without it effecting their grammar.

When did society give up on research and sound empirical methodology? “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” is the worst thing that ever happened to us, because it was woefully misunderstood to mean that everyone can assert whatever they want as truth, and that asking them to support or defend their position is somehow unfair.

senshikaze says:

Re: Re:

i don’t know about kids, but get grown adults sending me email daily that read:

“Wut do u men i hav to stop using the internets”

I have gotten that. I constantly see “dat” “wut” “no(know)” “luk(look)” and about a hundred others ways to make yourself look like an idiot. and these are people who grew up without cell phones, twitter, and facebook.

Fuck those “studies”. there is no way it could get worse than the shit i see daily from these people.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s more to the comparison of kids to adults than just that though… remember that most adults never face any pressure to have good spelling or grammar. Kids are being tested on it daily. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to know that kids do a far better job than adults.

Moreover, the fact that they “grew up without cell phones” etc. could mean multiple things. I believe you are trying to say that since they grew up without them and adopted them later in life, naturally a generation growing up with them will have even worse grammar. But that’s jumping to conclusions.

Isn’t it equally likely, or in fact more likely (as studies have suggested), that kids who grow up with these technologies are better able to manage their different language styles on different mediums?

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“When did society give up on research and sound empirical methodology?”

Society in general has never been about research and sound empirical methodology. Society works off of emotions and anecdotal evidence. What “sounds” right is what is right.

It takes a lot of time and smart people to work real information founded on research and sound empirical methodology into the public consciousness. And there will always be hold outs.

The Anti-Mike (profile) says:

Nowhere else in the article does it present any evidence at all that texting or Twittering has anything to do with the grammar skills of students. Instead, there are a few people who suggest the real problem was that first one listed: the lack of any grammar instruction in high schools.

I am trying to think of where students might have learned smilies and things like LOL@Mike. Do you have any ideas?

dorp says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser.

I learned about the happy/sad faces from my teachers many years ago when they were the ones putting them on my graded papers. That was before the cool kids even got their pagers. So blame the teachers for the emoticons.

Grading other students’ work, I also learned that phonetic spelling of street lingo is a common thing for undereducated. It was true before pagers, before cell phones, texting and IMing and it will continue to stay true even if nuclear war was to knock out all the electronic devices.

Checkmate. Feel free to associate more random and irrelevant data without any proof of causation. It’s always fun.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“Grading other students’ work, I also learned that phonetic spelling of street lingo is a common thing for undereducated.”

Well, I think the emphasis here is on “undereducated.” People who go to college generally are not part of the “undereducated.” I think that most people under 20 today got used to smilies and a lot of written abbreviations from the Internet and texting. Now, as Mike pointed out, a lot of these people would probably not be writing at all and so it would not make much sense to just blame the new ITs for everything. But they probably do play a negative effect on grammar.

dorp says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

People who go to college generally are not part of the “undereducated.”

You must be from a country outside of North America. Large portion of students failed English tests before, they will continue to do so now. Feel free to visit any English 101 class in any university and see the failure rate, then go back to your original statement and kick yourself in the ass for being so damn wrong.

Again, as I said, emoticons were there before texting. Smiley faces and frowns and hairy dudes were there before internet appeared in schools.

Hell, emoticons were there before your mom was even born:

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nowhere in the article does it say that such terms and abbreviations were what caused the low grammar scores.

A-M, I have a hard time even listening to your ideas when you are so ready to defend poor journalism. If you still believe, and want to make the case that, technology is hurting grammar then fine, go ahead. But don’t defend a story that is obviously drawing a conclusion out of thin air and calling it the results of a study.

Pickle Monger (profile) says:

Re: National children's mortality rate in inversely proportional to number of TV sets per capita

So I does being “Anti-Mike” means being anti-logic, anti-evidence, anti-comrehension, etc…

Nobody is disputing the current state of things. Also, nobody is disputing where children learned the LOL-speak. What people here are disputing is the implication that Faceboor, Twitter and texting are responsible for the situation.

“We haven’t taught grammar for 30-40 years…(and it) hasn’t worked.”

“It’s not that hard to teach basic grammar,” [Budra] says.

I would posit that people use the LOL-speak because they don’t know any better. If grammar isn’t taught in schools, do you honestly think that children would pick up the grammar manuals if only it weren’t for Facebook, Twitter, and cellphones?

James Turk of the Association of University Teachers takes all the complaints about student literacy with a grain of salt.

“There’s a notion of a golden age in the past that students were wonderful, unlike now. I’m not sure that golden age ever existed,” he says.

It would seem that at least Mr. Turk disagrees with such a notion.

In fact, let’s examine what ALL the experts (in order of appearance) in this article are saying:

1. Ann Barrett, managing director of the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo University:

“Poor grammar is the major reason students fail, says Barrett.”
“Some students in public schools are no longer being taught grammar, she believes.”

2. Rummana Khan Hemani, Simon Fraser university’s director of academic advising – no quotes regarding causality

3. Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser:

“He says this has been going on now for the 20 years he’s taught college and university in B.C. and Ontario-only the mistakes have changed.

He too blames poor – or no – grammar instruction in lower schools.”

4. Joel Postman, author of “SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate,” who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking:

“I think it has,” – in regard to the statement that “Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills”

5. Margaret Proctor, University of Toronto writing support co-ordinator – no opinion on causality

6. James Turk – see above

So out of six (6) experts mentioned in this article two (2) have not said anything regarding the cause of the problem, one (1) thinks that there’s in no specific problem with the current generation (the one that is supposedly negatively affected by technology), one (1) – the one with a book to sell – agrees with the article’s premise, and two (2) think that the problem is with the schools not teaching grammar.

Need I say more? Have you actually read the artile?

P.S. If you think sarcasm replaces logical arguments, you’re dreaming in Technocolor.

John Robinson (profile) says:

The article also fails to put the University of Waterloo stat into context.

One third of the student population would seem like an alarming stat for most schools. At UW, it really doesn’t surprise me. I’m not saying that the stat is excusable, just understandable given the context.

UW is dominated by mostly engineers and science students, I’m not sure of the exact proportion but it’s close to 2/3 of the student body. Not to mention that for many of these students, English is a second language which may help clarify the cause for the stat. It’s a huge stretch to blame the “illiteracy” on technology.

I wouldn’t take this article too seriously anyways. It was posted on which is not exactly recognized for its reputable journalism in Canada.

another mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It doesn’t magically get better after graduation, either. I’ve known people in booming technical fields repeatedly passed over for promotions and awards because they can’t communicate intelligibly. My current employer has recommended remedial grammar and technical writing courses to several employees to improve their prospects.

It has to be handled very delicately, though. No one wants to be told their language skills are so poor they should shut up and don’t type, either. There’s anger management courses for the employees telling them that at the top of their lungs. And yes, that actually has happened.

BTW I retweeted this article. @redkendrick

BBT says:

Mike you idiot!

“Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills, say even experts in the field.

“I think it has,” says Joel Postman, author of “SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate,” who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking. “

See, hard evidence, right there. Did you even read the article? Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills. Even experts are saying it! Quid pro quo, Expecto Petronum, QED.

Josh Bova says:

U shld be fired 4 txting "wat".

If in fact there is a problem with our collective grammar I’d blame word processing software first. It is there that we are protected from sounding like idiots. Poor grammar in texting, is like poor grammar in speaking (spelling the obvious exception). And to be sure, I don’t speak the same way I write. In conversation (not public speaking) a certain degree of relaxing-of-the-rules can be useful, particularly when attempting to be accepted by a person or group not from your immediate background.

jsl4980 (profile) says:

Who would read the truth?

The writer most likely knew that this is a non story so in order to get people to read it or talk about it he just blamed technology. If he just wrote “kids are failing a test” no one would read it or talk about it. But he threw in the “blame technology” flame bait and we all talk about it. That guy knows how to get readers.

Or maybe it’s just a clueless writer who doesn’t know how to txt or tweet and he’s jealous of his 9 year old niece.

Brian W (profile) says:

This was on CTV this morning

This story was being discussed on “Canada AM” on CTV up here in Canada this morning and it was pretty funny. I don’t have a link to the video, but to paraphrase what happened, some pundit started in on how texting/twitter/facebook was causing drop in grammar scores. Then they went to the other person who said, “well actually, that’s not what our data shows. There is a slight drop in grammar proficiency, but we don’t know why.”

There was an extremely pregnant pause, at which point the host did a “let’s cut to a commercial and fire the producer” bit.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

do they have teachers unions in canada??

“Ontario’s Ministry of Education says grammar is a part of both its elementary and high school curriculum.”

If they have teachers unions in Canada then I think its just an article passing the buck. Laying the blame any where but the teachers. Children are getting really poor LCD educations because we dont want to offend the stupid kids. The teachers suck in public schools and are not held accountable or rewarded for doing well. In any system rewarding people of quality with a larger pay check causes them to excel.

Anonymous Coward says:

The whole debate is mind-numbingly stupid. Even *IF* the students are learning poor grammar from texting/social networking, the ultimate problem is still…

…poor teaching.

After all, if the students were taught well, they wouldn’t be using “txtspk” or “AOLese” or emoticons on their grammar tests or in their term papers.

Rekrul says:

I never went to college, and I didn’t have access to the internet until long after I’d left school. I’ve never sent a text message in my life.

I’ll admit that at times, I’ve used some shorthand in messages, such as BTW (by the way), but I usually try to use correct grammar and spelling. I make typos and plain old mistakes, not to mention that my use of grammar would probably be considered terrible by most college professors, but at least I try.

Every single day that I read forums, I see messages from people who don’t know the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, or “to” and “too”. I see people putting “ed” on the end of words like “wake” or “bleed”. People leave out punctuation and capitalization. They use texting conventions like “u”, “ur” or “ther”. I’ve seen messages that were so garbled that I couldn’t even figure out what they were trying to say.

Such things may make sense when texting due to the more complicated process of typing on a cell phone, or the small size of most phone keyboards, but there’s no excuse for it on the net. The people writing these messages are using desktops and laptops with full keyboards.

Go read the comments for ANY YouTube video and then tell me that you think the use of grammar is improving.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Go read the comments for ANY YouTube video and then tell me that you think the use of grammar is improving.

What does that have to do with anything? And a century ago all the nimrods could not even figure out the alphabet and kept their stupid selves within the neighborhood they were born in, so no one ever knew how stupid they were or how many of them were out there. You neither proved proof for any point of view neither made one yourself. What do we blame that on?

kyle clements (profile) says:

One thing that these studies all fail to recognize is that up until 2002 or 2003, Ontario high schools all had an optional 5th year.

This 5th year, called OAC, was significantly more difficult than grade 12. In terms of course-load and expectations, it resembled university more than high school. Students wanting to go to university would stay for OAC, and get an extra year of learning.

Then they got rid of it. Guess when this happened? Just when cell phones, instant messaging and social networking was starting to take off.

Of course students are performing at a lower level. They are entering University at 18, rather than 19. On top of the lost year, they had to sit through two separate teacher strikes, and had to go through the Mike Harris “schools can’t use old textbooks, but get no money for new textbooks” stupidity.

The whole thing is a “global warming vs. decline of pirates” situation. There might be a correlation, but it is in no way causative.

Owain Robinson (user link) says:

Bad Grammar and Diction

I have two Daughters 8 and 15. I read to them regularly which inacts different reactions. It may be much to their disgust or liking rather for the fact that it is unique in their world outside of school. I can only suggest grammar and diction as a mandate in learning how to write and how we develop language. I am not going through exercises with them that dull their wit to the point that they feel it is redundant or conversely dumb.

I find kids constantly searching for a meaning or a word that they can’t express properly. This is a hand down and we have to begin. youtube comments are a glaring blatant example of how bad it can get. But then again it gets the message across no matter how rude and ignorant some of them may be. It’s up to us parents. ’nuff said.


mark pennington (user link) says:

Grammar Instruction

Perhaps a useful starting point for our discussion would be to come to consensus about what we expect students to know about grammar and when. Establishing a common ground on this issue can help us determine what to diagnostically assess in order to determine our students’ relative strengths and weaknesses. Only at this point does it make sense to discuss the instructional strategies that will address the needs of our students. For more about how to establish this consensus, read this article at

SueAndersonLenz (profile) says:


I’m not going to try to speculate what causes poor grammar….

… what I want to know is how you react when you see bad grammar and typos on company websites, in product literature, etc.

I’m conducting a survey to understand the impact that poor grammar has on business.

It’s just 5 questions long, so it won’t take more than 1 minute of your time to complete and you can remain anonymous.

Please tell me what you think by taking the survey now:

Thanks in advance for your help.


Angela (user link) says:

Interesting article that I stumbled across trying to find research for my son’s homework. He is writing about the affect of Social Media on children today and was specifically told by his class teacher that it had been scientifically proven that the social media sites had caused degraded grammar and decreased complexity of the styles of language being used.

Just wondered if anyone had a more recent report ?
Thanks Angie

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