1414: Writing Skills

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 09:20, 27 January 2023 by Mushrooms (talk | contribs) (added category)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
Writing Skills
I'd like to find a corpus of 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.
Title text: I'd like to find a corpus of 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.


Cueball and White Hat are discussing the positive and negative effects of young people writing on mobile phones in the vernacular of the day, Short Message Service (SMS).

SMS messages are one of the primary means of text communication on mobile devices, and are typically limited to 160 characters. Due to the limited space available on this and other messaging platforms, and also to decrease the time taken to write a message, SMS language (aka textese) developed as a form of short-hand writing. This involves the abbreviation and deliberate misspelling of words, and the use of acronyms.

Naturally, the use of this style of language has expanded into other areas, including those where brevity is not an issue, and this expansion and evolution of language is a subject of intense debate. The main viewpoints on the subject are:

  • Language is being negatively degraded by the use of text speak
  • The use of text speak is a natural evolution of language

Cueball's point is that "practice makes perfect". The ability to form good grammar comes from practice through a lot of writing, even when that writing is informal; hence, the SMS generation gets a lot of practice compared to previous generations, who communicated mostly with speech, over the phone, and in person, and may have written only a few letters a year. To foster talent for a major literary work, we should encourage practice, even when that practice is through informal writing such as SMS.

This idea has some real scientific background. Such as the investigation in 2009 Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. In this study children 10-12 were asked to compose text messages. The number of textisms was recorded, and a positive correlation was found between use of SMS abbreviations and success at literacy tests. This is then related to David Crystal's concept of "ludic" language: the playful use of language as a contribution to language development. That notion is developed here: By playing with textual language, one develops writing skills, just as by playing with balls one can develop sports skills. David Crystal explains: "Children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed great literary awareness [...] If you are aware that your texting behavior is different, you must have intuited that there is a standard."

James Joyce was a celebrated Irish novelist and poet, and his novel Ulysses is considered to be one of the most important works of modernist literature. It was criticized in some quarters for the frequent lack of punctuation and ungrammatical stream of consciousness narrative mode. In addition to his better-known works, he wrote a number of love letters with extremely explicit content.

In the title text, Randall wishes to prove Cueball's point by analyzing and comparing bulk volumes of texts (= a corpus) written by children today and 20 years ago. Randall favors the literary ability of today's children for their everyday use of written word over the situation of the past, when children wrote only if forced to do so. The title text's second sentence is particularly long and complex (compared to almost any other title text), which will generally score much higher "on various objective measures of writing quality". Randall may be hinting that writing a lot of short title texts, like writing a lot of SMSs, improves your general writing quality - further strengthening Cueball's point. The title text is also 99 words long, probably referencing a 100 word limit.


[White Hat and Cueball are walking together, White Hat is holding a newspaper or report.]
White Hat: Weird- Another study found that kids who use SMS abbreviations actually score higher on grammar and spelling tests.
Cueball: Why on earth is that a surprise?
[Cueball turns to White hat (who is now out side the frame. Inserted in the frame is a panel showing several kids throwing balls.]
Cueball: Imagine kids suddenly start playing catch literally all the time. Everywhere they go, they throw balls back and forth, toss them in the air, and hurl them at trees and signs- Nearly every waking hour of their lives.
[Cueball talks on while White Hat begins to walk.]
Cueball: Do you think their generation will suck at baseball because they learned sloppy skills?
White Hat: ...So you think someone will become a great writer while sexting?
[They walk together.]
Cueball: Have you read James Joyce's love letters? The phrases "My little fuckbird" and "Arse full of farts" appear. If we want to write Ulysses, our generation may not be sexting enough.
White Hat: Eww.


  • Randall originally misspelled surprise as "suprise" in the first panel and also wrote "writing writing" in the beginning of the title text instead of just "writing". It was initially conjectured here that the errors may have been deliberately introduced as they are relevant to the subject. However, both of these errors were corrected on the same day the comic was released and currently are not present in the live version.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


If you think about it, Scooby-Doo does the exact same thing for kids, but with the Scientific Method. While viewers may not be capable of running a rigorous experiment, they'll be really familiar with gathering evidence to reveal new knowledge. CharlesT 23:36, 17 February 2021 (UTC)

Scoring higher on grammar and spelling tests could be related to constantly using the English language - however I think an opportunity was missed with this one: the correlation between kids who have access to texting devices and kids who have access to good schooling and tutoring. -- Slippyshoe (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Is the double "writing" at the beginning of the title text a typo, or has it a meaning? (Non-native english here, so I probably missed something). 08:13, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

As a native english speaker, I don't see any reason why it is double. Either a typo, or maybe a joke on sloppy writing skills.. --Pudder (talk) 08:16, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

I have to take issue with Randall on the alt-text, they don't use the written word so much as the typed word -- penmanship, which was already on the wane when I was in school 25+ years ago, is no longer being taught, or so I've been told by young people coming in to work. Surprisingly, neither are kids being taught to touch-type! The new kids coming to the job are constantly surprised that I can type without looking at the screen or keyboard, not to mention my typing speed! Additionally, composition beyond the sentence level is simply abysmal nowadays; paragraph and essay structure are simply no longer being taught. I myself only got one class in it during my high school sophomore year in 1984/5 -- and the administration eliminated it even before I graduated. In short, while kids are great at writing sentences nowadays, the ability to write coherent longer communications, and yes, handwriting too; despite their being in increased use in today's workplace, are simply things that young people are arriving unequipped with. Elipongo (talk) 08:53, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

"+1"/"Like" for your comprehensive writing style -- however Randall is not concluding anything in in the alt-text but merely proposes and experiment and a method to to conduct such with an expected observation and outcome for verification of such experiment. That is an entirely scientific and objective approach to a problem and hardly something which one can take issue with. Spongebog (talk) 09:55, 29 August 2014 (UTC)
I wouldn't miss handwriting, but the fact they don't teach touch-type is alarming. -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:06, 29 August 2014 (UTC)
With computers in abundance in childrens lives (and hence plenty of practice), I would have thought that actively teaching typing is not that important. Again its a quantity vs quality balance. Some careers would certainly benefit from faster and more accurate typing skills than others (e.g A secretary), but I don't feel someone is necessarily a poor typist because they don't touch-type correctly.--Pudder (talk) 12:30, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

I'm from an older generation that did receive education in writing, composition, grammar etc. We all began with simple "The cat sat on the mat" sentences when young, and gradually improved our skills by practising progressively more difficult tasks. However the key issues were that our output was both judged and directed. Our teachers assessed our writing, pointed out the errors (oh, did they point out the errors!), told us what was 'right', and then set us to writing longer, more complex subjects and structures. The problem with txtspk is that it is unjudged and undirected. I think Randall's idea that quantity will eventually overcome mediocrity is getting too close to the monkeys producing Shakespeare. Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No. --KAM (talk) 10:15, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

I think kids can judge perfectly fine. But yes, txtspk can help with practice on some level of difficulty but doesn't allow to continue higher. They need to move to more advanced methods ... like flame wars. And about pointing errors? You never saw online argument where one side tried to undermine opponent by pointing out grammatic mistakes in their post? -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:06, 29 August 2014 (UTC)
I cannot agree with you because I think you should have used "an", "any" or the plural “arguments" in "You never saw online argument ...". Also, you made me search for the right use of "grammatic" versus "grammatical". ;) 14:26, 29 August 2014 (UTC)
It's obvious to me that you degenerates were both part of the inspiration for Godwin's Law Brettpeirce (talk) 11:55, 2 September 2014 (UTC)

Ironically, "Ulysses" from James Joyce is also considered one of the worst and most boring books in human history, topping many lists of books you can't get past the first page. Many people joke that Marilyn Monroe was one of the few persons that ever read the book right by starting from the end. -- 13:09, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

Is anyone familiar with a recent report that might have lead to this comic? There is no specific reference given in the comic. I think most of the reports on this topic were from Beverly Plester of Coventry University between 2006 and 2011. I can't find much of anything since then... -- 14:32, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

Analysis of Research on the Effects of Texting and Tweeting on Literacy — 2014 should be a good starting point but it's behind a paywall. The Impact of Texting/SMS Language on Academic Writing of Students-What do we need to panic about? — Pakistan, 2013 and The Relationship of SMS to the Writing Proficiency of the First Year Education Students of the University of the Immaculate Conception — Philipines, 2013 are both recent studies generally concluding punctuation use is bad but SMS is not to blame; I'd say both have too little data to support any wide conclusion. Cben (talk) 00:08, 9 September 2014 (UTC)

With the growing influence of voice recognition interfaces, will some folks someday be decrying the shift to abbreviated forms of speech, and the lack of attention to teaching writing or using GUI interfaces? And, as Tim O'Reilly notes, will others celebrate the return to something like the "command line" of old, highly suitable to extensibility and programming via macros, creation of new nouns and verbs, etc? See Programmer Musings: Why Textual User Interfaces are Better than Graphic User Interfaces and At Home with Tim O'Reilly (Videos 1 and 2 of 6) - Slashdot (click below the videos to see the transcript, and note that it doesn't work in their beta interface). Nealmcb (talk) 15:25, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

A nice thing about texting is that you learn pretty quickly about the ambiguities that make punctuation and grammar necessary in the first place. ("I saw a man eating shark today." "At SeaWorld?" "No, at a restaurant.") Promethean (talk) 23:41, 30 August 2014 (UTC)

Except people who play catch aim at things. 02:21, 31 August 2014 (UTC)

It may be true that grammar is essentially the language we use to talk about language. Nonetheless, you still need to master this sub-language. Lack of understanding of grammar impedes basic understanding - who is the actor in this sentence? What is the action? Who did what to who? What is this idea you are trying to communicate? I don't care about split infinitives or poorly placed commas. Rather, it's the old "eats shoots and leaves" jokes that remain salient. If you haven't mastered basic grammar when, for example, writing an essay, nobody knows what you're talking about on a fundamental level. So, it's not merely terminology (adverb! gerund!) It is a necessary set of rules. Merrill (talk) 03:16, 01 August 2018 (GMT-5)

This would imply that writers like, say, Homer or Lady Murasaki, who never studied grammar, were incompetent. This is incorrect. One can master the rules without knowing the specific vocabulary and taxonomy of linguistics. Nitpicking (talk) 14:26, 10 December 2021 (UTC)