Your Character Counts!


By Adam Wear

At some point in the remote past of social media (1992), people began to send text messages to each other. These short messages passed from one phone to another with a 160-character limit and, lo, frustration was born:

John texts: Bob! How are you doing? I am doing great. I was hoping to get in touch with you about the Johnson account that we have been working on. It seems that we need t…

John, of course, continues typing away, without realizing that the machine no longer cares what he is attempting to type because he has reached the allotted character limit. Once he presses send, he finds that a significant portion of his message has wandered off into the aether, and he proceeds to curse technology with what can only be described as the purest possible rage.

Imagine, if you will, that this had been about something far more important than a business account. Imagine that this lost information had been about Katy Perry’s current love interest or even about Neil Patrick Harris’ latest Halloween costume.

It was with these crucial events in mind that people began shortening words to make sure that no intricate portions of the conversation were missed.

Life was good. People were able to communicate much more information in a much shorter space. Now John was able to get the entire idea to Bob without worrying about limited character counts.

John texts: B! How U? We need 2 talk. Johnson acct. Thursday. TTYL.

Wonderful. John has easily come in at under 160 characters and has communicated everything he believes he needs to communicate.

He is, therefore, shocked to discover later that Bob is upset and has filed a lawsuit against the company because Bob believes that his boss, John, was intentionally referring to him with derogatory language and telling him to “take that, you loser!”

Of course, John did not mean this and believed he was sending an innocent message indicating that the project should be finished by Thursday and that he would “talk to you later” about the Johnson account.

Misinterpretations aside, the shortened form of text lingo, at one time, served a very real purpose: To make communicating with teenagers incomprehensible to adults.

I am, of course, kidding. Communicating with teenagers has always been incomprehensible to adults.

Seriously though, Short Message Service (SMS) communication had an issue of space to deal with and the abbreviated nature of text lingo provided a workable solution.

Please note, that last sentence is in the past tense.

After what seemed like ages, SMS providers realized that imposing a restriction on what was (essentially) a free transaction made no sense. A person sending one text message could as easily send two or three or, well, you get the idea.

Now the devices on which you search for cat pictures simply string your text messages together into one long message and sends it as such.

Which brings me to my actual point: Stop it.

You no longer need a shortened form of any word or every word or even my attention span to participate in text messaging. Everyone is allowed to write/type in complete sentences and insure that they are free from being misinterpreted.

The original point of text lingo was to be sure that we could communicate, even in a restrictive format. However, it is currently serving a much more sinister purpose: That of slowly turning our society illiterate in the name of convenience.

While most of our present lives are based on convenience, this demand for a language that provides us with instant gratification and/or predetermined revisions for our abysmal attempts at spelling will, in turn, remove any desire to properly form language. We will become a people completely dependent on spell check, if we have not already.

Therefore, go forth and fight the good fight. Ignore your brain telling you that learning grammar is an impossible and unnecessary task. Instead, be willing to understand the rules involving intelligent conversation and communication. Be willing to participate in these as soon as possible.

However, if you steadfastly insist on garbling the few language skills remaining to you in text, e-mail (shudder), or even in actual conversation, you should know the following things:

First, I am not going to respond. In person, I may even stare awkwardly at your chin. This is unnerving for people. Try it out some time.

Second, I am intentionally misinterpreting you. You may or may not have intended to indicate that you would like Lots Of Lobsters placed in your car, but I am happy to help, if at all possible.

Most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, I am wondering whether you are capable of coherent speech. However, do not panic. I am including a small metric by which you can judge your communication in the future.

It has been said that 50,000 monkeys with typewriters could (given an infinite amount of time) produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. If, after re-reading your text and before you hit “send,” you realize it would take only one monkey less than half an hour to accurately reproduce what you have written, strongly consider re-writing.

Still, try not to be caught off guard by my lack of response.

Adam Wear currently resides in Krum, TX, with his wife, three sons, and a foreign exchange student. He is an instructional consultant at the University of North Texas (UNT), a Ph.D. student in higher education (also at UNT), and teaches online composition at the University of West Alabama. In what little free time remains to him, he plays music and board games (rarely simultaneously), reads for pleasure (simultaneously rarely), and listens to television shows in the background of his Ph.D. reading (simultaneously simultaneously).



Linguist John McWhorter shared thoughts from the other side of the texting coin on the 2013 TED stage. Give a listen and let us know what side of the coin you call!

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