"Everybody thinks kids are ruining their language by using instant messaging, but these teens' messaging shows them expressing themselves flexibly through all registers," linguist Sali Tagliamonte said in a prepared statement. "They actually show an extremely lucid command of the language. We shouldn't worry."
Researchers at the University of Toronto report that IM does not deserve its bad reputation as a syntax spoiler. Tagliamonte and Derek Denis studied about 70 Toronto teens and compared their use of language in speech and instant messaging. They presented their findings at the Linguistics Society of Canada and the United States annual meeting Wednesday.
According to the researchers, 80 percent of Canadian teens use instant messaging and adopt its shorthand. The study found that instant messaging language mirrors patterns in speech but teens fuse informal and formal speech. It concluded that adverse claims about instant messaging are overblown.
"Teens are using both informal forms that their English teachers would never allow, yet they also use formal writing phrasing that, if used in speech, would likely be considered 'uncool," the researchers said through a statement released Monday.
Denis said during an interview Wednesday that the IM research sample encompassed a million words and the study was the largest of its kind. It focused on characteristic features of computer-mediated communication and examined four features of grammar: intensifiers, future tenses, quotes and deontic modality.
In a power point presentation, the researchers showed that the teen IM users seem equally at ease with writing the terms "gonna" and "shall" for the future tense, though shall was no more common in IM than in other forms of speech.
"What that tells us is that they have a fluid mastery of the language," Denis said. "They're using it creatively and vibrantly and, most important, they're using it correctly."
Users showed more use of the personal pronoun "I" and less use of the second and third person pronouns "you" and "he, she" and "they" in computer mediated conversations than in written language, according to the researchers' presentation.
The researchers came up with the idea after Tagliamonte became interested in the language of her four children, who Denis described as "avid users of instant messaging."
"They weren't too keen on having her go through their logs," he said.
Instead, seven researchers observed conversations of participants in two rounds of the university's mentoring program and students with different levels of academic achievement, Denis said. Now, the researchers are planning to follow their work by responding to feedback at Wednesday's conference suggesting an examination of other styles of writing compared to instant messaging.