It hadn’t. Indeed, the average rate of errors had barely budged in almost a century, from 2.11 errors per 100 words in 1917 to 2.26 words today. What’s more, there were “almost no instances” of the smileys or LOL-style short forms that have supposedly metastasized everywhere. (When students do deploy “textisms,” it’s not unintentional, University of Toronto linguist Sali Tagliamonte has found: They use short forms as flourishes of wit; and they do it more rarely than you would suspect.)
But Prof. Lunsford did find a big change in how students were writing – and it was a positive shift. Over the past century, the freshman composition papers had exploded in length and intellectual complexity. In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple “personal narratives.” By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a “researched argument or report,” with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.
As I get older, I find my ignorance bubbling up to my mouth. I’ll admit that I was in the camp of people that thought texting was hurting writing skills and form. But I’m starting to reframe my thoughts. I now ask, is this what they said about motion pictures, rock and roll, TV, video games and computers? It’s an easy test that often reveals an uninformed bias.