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Attack of the teenage texters

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 10, 2008 05:43 PM

In his hilarious commentary on today’s “Fresh Air,” linguist Geoff Nunberg recalls a time when it was telegrams, not text messages, that were going to “transform the language.” According to an 1848 essay by Conrad Swackhamer, a New York attorney and editor,

as people got used to sending and receiving telegrams and reading the telegraphed dispatches in the newspapers, they would inevitably cast off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The "telegraphic style," as Swackhamer called it, would be, "terse, condensed, expressive, sparing of expletives, and utterly ignorant of synonyms," and would propel the English language toward a new standard of perfection.

Now we’re all aflutter at the idea that text message is going to change English forever -- a notion irresistible to journalists, says Nunberg, because

it combined three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: "the language is going to hell in a handbasket"; "you'll never get me onto one of those newfangled things"; and "kids today, I'm here to tell you."

Nunberg zings the Globe for rising to the bait:

The Boston Globe published an editorial called "the revenge of e. e. cummings" that had no capital letters and was laced with LOL's and texting abbreviations. It had me wondering which is more embarrassing, hearing old people use teenage slang or hearing them make fun of it.

Decide for yourself: You can read Nunberg’s text here, or listen to the broadcast here.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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