Needs more sexting

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Today's xkcd:

I'm not sure what "another study" refers to in this case.

The mouseover title suggests a future research program in computational humanistic educational psychology:

I'd like to find a corpus of writing writing from children in a non-self-selected sample (e.g. handwritten letters to the president from everyone in the same teacher's 7th grade class every year)–and score the kids today versus the kids 20 years ago on various objective measures of writing quality. I've heard the idea that exposure to all this amateur peer practice is hurting us, but I'd bet on the generation that conducts the bulk of their social lives via the written word over the generation that occasionally wrote book reports and letters to grandma once a year, any day.

I suspect that children's letters to the president have always been heavily edited by adults. But modulo difficulties about selecting comparable samples across time, it might be possible to use the historical archive of ETS essays.

Some previous LLOG coverage of the issue:

"Shattering the illusions of texting", 9/18/2008
"Up in ur internets, shortening all the words", 10/28/2011
"Texting and language skills", 8/2/2012


  1. Jason said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    The last time a rather young woman sexted me, she used "perfect" standard English punctuation, grammar and spelling. Txtspeak is an old person's thing.

    [(myl) So I have been given to understand.]

  2. Old Gobbo said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 6:54 am

    Is this a new meaning of "modulo" that has escaped me ? Neither "difficulties with respect to a unit of architectural length in selecting comparable samples" nor "difficulties in finding the number to convert Napierian logarithms to an alternative logarithmic system when finding comparable samples" seems to make much sense. I yield to Professor Liberman's superior knowledge of both language and mathematical manipulation, but on what basis does 'e make this strange suggestion ?

    [(myl) Yes, this is a usage (new or not) that has escaped you. See this column in The Economist, which notes that the OED glosses it as "(a) With respect to an equivalence defined by (some feature), disregarding differences indicated by (some unimportant feature);  (b) taking into account (a particular consideration, aspect, assumption, etc.)." The OED gives citations back to 1953 — I suspect that earlier ones could be found.]

  3. leoboiko said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    Yeah who need to write in ad-hoc abjads when we have swype and autocorrect? Writing in standard spelling today is actually easier (because the system fetches everything from a dictionary). txt is ded.

    @Old Gobbo: It's sense 2 here, or 2~3 here.

  4. Alon said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:10 am

    @Old Gobbo: not so new that it hasn't been discussed here a lustrum ago.

    @myl: I suspect the “new study” is just a conceit. There is a 2014 paper by Wood et al, who authored a 2011 paper showing positive correlations between texting and grammatical ability, but it provides no new evidence on the matter.

  5. Alon said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:12 am

    Dammit, broken HTML. The link I wanted for Old Gobbo is here.

  6. Simon Wright said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:02 am

    Is ‘suprise’ in the first frame of the comic a mistake or a joke?

    [(myl) It's a common spelling mistake, encouraged by a common (American?) pronunciation of the word.]

  7. languagehat said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    There is considerable discussion of "modulo" at this 2007 LH thread, wherein it is showed convincingly (to my mind, anyway) that the OED screwed up the definition.

  8. Q. Pheevr said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    Finding a suitable corpus, I think, would be the easy part. Coming up with "various objective measures of writing quality" seems much more difficult, especially if you want to look at anything beyond conformity to some very basic norms of grammar, usage, and spelling. The comparison to Joyce suggests that Munroe is interested in more creative and stylistic properties—things that actually make writing good as opposed to merely ‘correct,’ but which would be much harder to measure objectively. But a purely qualitative examination of the corpus could be very interesting, even though it wouldn’t give either side of the debate a tidy set of numbers to brandish at the other.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    I have never been involved in baseball in a serious way, but it is not at all clear to me that doing lots and lots of throwing things in an unstructured/untutored way would, in fact, lead to stronger baseball-specific skills later on — it seems equally plausible that there are optimal techniques for the specific sorts of throwing that are maximally useful in the highly structured/artificial/arbitrary context of baseball but that will typically not be naturally stumbled into by childhood trial-and-error but are better imparted by coaches/instructors, and that such coaching/instruction might work better on a kid who has not already spent a lot of time developing suboptimal-for-that-context throwing techniques that need to be unlearned.

    Of course, fluent expression in a natural language is not particularly analogous to playing baseball well (although maybe being unusually good at linguistic expression within a highly rule-bound subgenre like the Petrarchan sonnet might be?), so for all its hipster/nerdy credentials xkcd (or at least this particular character, who I suppose is not necessarily supposed to be a stand-in for the author) is falling into the hoary cliche of the inarticulate American male who cannot express himself without using gratuitous sports metaphors that prove to be inapt.

  10. leoboiko said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    Skilled expression in writing is related to, but different than fluent expression in natural language (natural language has no spelling or punctuation, for example – no, pauses in natural prosody do not correspond to punctuation). It's possible to be amazing at verbal expression but lousy at writing. Writing is also closer to baseball in the continuum.

  11. C. Scott Ananian said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: you are just stating conventional wisdom, on both English and Baseball. Some people believe teachers to be vitally important. Some people believe that the ability to learn is innate.

    I don't think Randall Monroe is *disagreeing* with you, so much as stating a different possibility and expressing interest in research exploring the situation. Absent data, reasonable people can disagree.

    (I have my own biased opinion, having worked on a teacherless literacy-learning program in Ethiopia.)

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

    Obviously the *ability* to learn baseball must be innate, because the ability to learn anything that is, in fact, observably learned by human beings must in some sense be innate.

    A better language-to-sports analogy for the (non-surprising-to-me) claim the xkcd strip starts with might be that kids who play multiple sports in addition to baseball won't necessarily be worse at baseball and might be better, because they will learn to, as it were, code-switch – they will understand correctly whether at a given moment they happen to be in the middle of a baseball game or a lacrosse game and deal with the ball in a contextually appropriate way. On the other hand, I wonder if there are very many people out there who code-switch at a high level of competence between baseball pitching and softball pitching, or between either of those and cricket bowling or if past a certain level there is a strong incentive to pick one genre out of those rather similar ones and stick to it.

    No one taught James Joyce how to write the way he did. He was not a certified product of a creative writing M.F.A. program. He was not coached. He would not have done well in most organized sports because he was innovative in a way that would probably have gotten him expelled from the game by the officials for violating the rules. It is hard to find a sports analogy for that sort of innovation, especially since wikipedia suggests that the traditional account that rugby was invented on a particular day by a particular pupil at Rugby School violating the conventions of proto-soccer by picking up the ball and running with it (and somehow being so cool that the conventions locally evolved to accommodate the innovation) is historicity-challenged: Although I guess one could consider

  13. the other Mark P said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    Finding a suitable corpus, I think, would be the easy part. Coming up with "various objective measures of writing quality" seems much more difficult, especially if you want to look at anything beyond conformity to some very basic norms of grammar, usage, and spelling.

    It is precisely the modern kid's inability to conform to basic norms that irritates many. Few people complain that modern children can't frame a syllogism properly, for example.

    Objective measures of fluency and compositional skills would be hard to find, true, but double blind studies get round such issues in other areas. (The texts would need to be typed though, as handwriting styles have changed.)

    The difficulty is in matching like with like, so that your samples match the full range of the population.

    100 years ago a significant number of people left school at 14. So if you match school age kids at 15 then and now you have a very different slice of the population. Likewise the "average" university student now is almost certainly less good at writing than the "average" university student 60 years ago, as they are not even remotely the same subsection of the population.

  14. Rubrick said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

    The "suprise" misspelling has since been fixed, in case you want to update the image (though that would of course render the comment regarding it confusing).

  15. Felix said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

    @Rubrick — the double "writing" has also been fixed.

  16. CThornett said,

    August 30, 2014 @ 12:42 am

    One barrier for adults in ESL or literacy classes is the sheer, paralysing terror that sweeps through a class when the teacher says 'I'd like you to write….' Texting, even several years ago when I was still teaching, doesn't seem to raise the same anxieties, so it is one way to make written communication less frightening, to make it more a part of everyday life. Instruction in grammar, spelling, conventions for letters and so on is much more effective when anxieties around writing are removed or reduced, in the same way that children who see throwing a ball as an everyday activity that they enjoy will probably find it easier to learn the more skilled techniques that a baseball player needs. And a child who sings and sees people singing or playing instruments as an everyday activity will probably make better progress learning music.

    That said, the fad in adult education ESL and literacy for using devices and social media seems to be subsiding to more reasonable levels. But teachers in an under-resourced sector have developed very ingenious ways of using phones and other devices to help their students.

  17. Stephen said,

    August 30, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Whilst reading your second paragraph I was going to respond to "On the other hand, I wonder if there are very many people out there who code-switch at a high level of competence between" with a comment about rugby!

    [Brief historical aside.
    The 'rugby' that William Webb Ellis didn't invent evolved into Rugby Union which stayed officially amateur from the 1840s until 1995. In 1895 Rugby League was formed from Rugby Union and always allowed the players to be paid.

    So for a long time there was a flow of talented RU players to RL drawn by the money.

    RU & RL are normally referred to as different codes rather than as different games. However many of the really good RU players who went to RL did not really succeed and even those who did took quite some time (a couple of years?) to really adapt.

    When RU went professional (and RL in the UK changed season) there were a number of really good RL players who were signed on short-term contracts (for the few months when the seasons did not overlap). Mostly they did not do well. Some of them (in big games after only a couple of weeks) looked pretty foolish as their instincts (habits?) led them to do totally inappropriate things.

    Since then, there have been a flow of players from RL to RU and again not all have really been a success and the ones who have been have taken quite some time to adapt.

    So at the local club level, your point about code-switching may be correct but I don't think that it is likely at the professional level.

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 31, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    I'm a bit confused here: what Munroe seems actually to be arguing is that people who text a lot will be better at writing. But what the reported study says is that people who use SMS abbreviations are better at writing. As Jason points out, backed up by a previous XKCD, these are not the same group of people.

  19. Old Gobbo said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    @modulo: my thanks to all, beginning with Professor L., who have tried to abate the swelling tides of my ignorance. Although I have done a fair amount of work with statistics, I never got far beyond A-level maths, and I suspect that A-level has now overtaken me again. In defence I would note that my 2009 edition of the OED only gives “with respect to a modulus… modular” leading to the modulus definitions I averted to (and there are a lot of other things wrong with it); and my American Heritage dictionary is positively ancient. However, as an ancient pensioner myself, I doubt I can afford a later edition of either, so I am grateful to Leoboiko also for sending me back to Wiktionary, which I had earlier rather too quickly rejected

    Still, my apologies to @myl for distracting from the discussion, and my thanks to him yet again, for making me read this post so carefully that for the first time I realized his interjections did not enthusiastically begin “my!” but simply acknowledged authorship.

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