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A study of student writing found that most students knew enough to avoid using “textisms” in formal assignments.

Ever since instant messaging arrived in the mid 90s, there has been concern about a decline in writing skills, and it increased with the advent of text messaging, with its abbreviations, casual language, and clipped format. But four professors who surveyed students in Canada and Australia and who studied exams discovered that most students knew where to draw the line.

Students “are able to discern levels of appropriateness for textism use in a range of contexts, and appear willing and able to avoid textism use in formal writing,” the professors wrote in a recent issue of the journal New Media & Society.

There were two studies. One asked students when they felt it was and was not appropriate to use texting language, and the second study focused on 303 exams that included extensive essay questions. Students rated textisms as appropriate when writing to friends and taking notes in class, “but they almost uniformly believed textism use in formal assignments and exams to be entirely inappropriate,” the professors said.

Some educators have voiced concern that over time, with enough exposure to text messaging, the traditional mental representation of a word in the brain will be overwritten by the texting version. But the authors of this study said that if that were the case, there would be more evidence of textisms intruding on formal writing.

Although the studies involved a limited number of participants, one of the authors, Nenagh Kemp, said it was likely that university students worldwide share similar attitudes. But she said that in countries with a more formal or hierarchical structure, such as in many Asian countries, there may be sharper differences of opinion about the appropriateness of text-style writing for certain audiences.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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