Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a person LOLing and crying -- but I am definitely weeping. The cause for my earth-shattering depression is an April 25 Pew Research Center study that polled 12- to 17-year-olds on their attitudes about writing. A heart-stopping 38% said they let chat-speak -- such as LOL (for "laughing out loud"), ROFL ("rolling on the floor laughing"), BRB ("be right back"), TTYL ("talk to ya later") -- slip into essays and homework.
I propose a new chat term: KMN. "Kill me now."
I'm an occasional tutor in San Francisco public schools with 826 Valencia, a writing-based community outreach program, and I have seen some linguistic horrors in the trenches. I've been asked how to spell "here" and "one" by high school seniors and seen more your/you're, there/their, to/too mix-ups than a homophone workbook. But at least those students were using actual words. I dread my first encounter with text-speak, but I know it's coming: "Marcel Marceau lived in France and totally brought the LOLz." Even more gut-tossing is the fact that 25% of teens in the Pew study have used emoticons on tests, homework and essays. Oh, imagine the history papers: "When President Abe Lincoln was gatted, the whole country was =(, even though some in the South must have been =P."
KMN, KMN, KMN.
Linguistic butchery while texting is one thing. In school assignments, it is quite another. What's worse is how popular culture is encouraging this madness. A notorious offender called ICanHasCheezburger.com is a cute enough diversion -- it posts adorable pictures of cats, "lolcats" as they're called, with funny captions. But persevere beyond your first gag reflex and you'll notice that the captions are written in lolspeak.
Lolspeak has its own wiki-dictionary online -- sorry, a dikshunary -- where fanatics go to linguistically out-mangle one another. A recent entry on ICanHasCheezburger.com featured a cat looming over a laptop with the caption: "Just when u thot it wuz safe 2 go bak on teh interwebs." Another features a kitten: "why ur hed just asplode? wuz it my cuteness? sry."
Why did my head just "asplode," kitty dear? Because I could not transcribe that caption without Microsoft Word's AutoCorrect going into overdrive. And because ICanHasCheezburger.com receives 50 million page views every single month. Only 50% of users are between 18 and 49 -- which means a large chunk of the under-18 set is picking up lolspeak when they should be learning English.
Hollywood's already in on it. Last month, racy advertisements for the teen TV series "Gossip Girl" got a lot of buzz for printing "OMFG" in giant type under a photo of the sleek stars in a slutty, hazy embrace. Also last month, the U.S. Department of Education released the Nation’s Report Card on Writing 2007. The results suggested that only 33% of eighth-graders demonstrated abilities at or above proficiency level. James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, introduced these findings with a comment about "the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought -- the sentence." ROFL, James, the sentence is dead and buried. AOL Instant Messenger is dancing on its grave.
Yet according to the Pew survey, 86% of teens believe that good writing is an essential skill for later in life.
So teens, put your hands up and step away from MySpace while you're doing homework. Teachers, tutors, parents, it's time to face the enemy: lolspeak. It's fight now or face a sentence-less future of three-letter words. OMG.