Access to a computer has undoubtedly eroded the wits of press release writers

From a rewritten press release (also picked up by the New York Times) is a passage spoken by a man who’s probably never studied Civil War letters, or any collection of letters written before the typewriter age:

Computers are second nature for today’s college students. They grew up with technology and the Internet. However, they also grew up with e-mail and text-messaging, which have undoubtedly eroded the fundamental writing skills needed in most professional positions. Shortened syntax, incomplete sentences and no punctuation may be acceptable for instant messaging between friends, but most offices require a much higher level of sophistication, even in e-mails between co-workers. It would be in college students’ best interest to enroll in more writing classes.”

I won’t argue the best point here, that students should take more writing classes, since I think everyone should take more writing classes regardless of their natural abilities, but abbreviation and indifferent punctuation have been going on for as long as people could write. As has good old mistake-making.

But that’s mild quibbling, perhaps, when there is a bigger fish to fry: the unsubstantiated claim that technology is to blame. There is no research I know of—and I am currently heavily reading up on this in preparation for some public presentations—that shows language is, has been, or will be eroded by email or text messaging. In fact, heavy users of those forms of communication have been shown to have higher levels of literacy and to practice more nuanced communication than their peers who do not use those modes of communication.

Be very careful if you choose to defend the sentence including “undoubtedly eroded”: “erode” doesn’t mean “to make people use language in new ways that I am uncomfortable with.” It means “to gradually destroy.”

But there’s a still bigger fish: there’s no study to back up the original press release. It’s a survey of 100 “human resources executives.” (A study is not the same as a survey, no matter how often journalists use them as synonyms.) The claim, as expressed by the Arizona Republic, that “Forty-five percent of survey respondents said written communication is where recent graduates are most deficient,” is meaningless. No matter how many HR execs think writing is a problem, it could be that only 5% of entry-level applicants need better written communication skills and that all the other complaints about entry-level applicants represent still smaller numbers of applicants.

I cannot find the press release on the Internet, including on the web site of the head-hunting firm that released it, so I cannot see if there are more complete numbers available.

For enlightenment about online communication, I recommend reading articles in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which are freely available online.

Posted August 27, 2007

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