Netspeak Won’t Get You A Date

Tom Woodward, coming down on “the arbitrary rules of English”:

I’ve actually listened to teachers brag that they never abbreviate when texting and that they used full and complete punctuation. That pretty much says to me, “The arbitrary ‘rules’ of English are more important than its purpose. Changing styles for different purposes and media doesn’t make sense.” I can’t think of a worse lesson for a student or a worse mind set for a teacher.

Christian Rudder, analyzing over 500,000 contacts on his dating site OkCupid, noting that the same rules Tom scorns score you a date more often than they don’t:

Netspeak, bad grammar, and bad spelling are huge turn-offs. Our negative correlation list is a fool’s lexicon: ur, u, wat, wont, and so on. These all make a terrible first impression. In fact, if you count hit (and we do!) the worst 6 words you can use in a first message are all stupid slang.

The exceptional OkCupid blog is what happens when a bunch of Harvard math students decide to run a dating site. The blog doesn’t cover technical notes, release dates, or any site business at all. Instead, it offers up infographic after infographic pitched directly along my students’ hormonal wavelength.

We’ve picked over the entire blog’s offering, stopping with this astrology-debunking beauty yesterday:

Back when my dad started teaching in dickety-two, you simply couldn’t access this kind of fun so quickly or cheaply. Let’s not squander this.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. You might note that I said “when texting” and my focus is that you ought to change your mode of communication depending on the media and the occasion of use.

    I was in no way recommending that people use text lingo in first contact communications on online dating sites. So I see this juxtaposition as artificial and somewhat misleading.

    I maintain that feeling somehow superior for never abbreviating when typing with your thumbs on a phone is a stupid and spiteful pride born out of something other than common sense. It’s stupid to pretend I can’t spell things out with a full keyboard and abbreviate when I don’t have one.

  2. Tom: It’s stupid to pretend I can’t spell things out with a full keyboard and abbreviate when I don’t have one.

    Something doesn’t feel right here. We permit abbreviations and netspeak when the alternative (correct grammar and punctuation) is inconvenient? What about Twitter’s 140-character limit? More often than not, I can trim a lengthy tweet down to size without abbreviating words or stripping vowels simply by focusing my thoughts better.

    I don’t know if that’s pride. I only know it makes my thoughts clearer to the people who read them. I tend to think that most people appreciate the extra effort at legibility. The singles over at OkCupid certainly seem to.

  3. What doesn’t feel right is your seemingly intentional misunderstanding and misapplication of stats from a dating site to a much broader and far different context. First conversations on a dating site don’t really parallel how people who know one another communicate.

    Secondly, who’s “permitting” anything? It simply is and there’s a reason that it is. To say otherwise is to ignore reality.

    In my case, and I think with many others, the people I converse with and the things I say on Twitter are vastly different than the conversations I have and the people I communicate with on my phone via text. Those are both things that will influence how and what I write.

    There is a problem when abbreviation impacts understanding but that’s not what I’m addressing. If both parties understand the conversation then who cares if they abbreviate or not? To pretend that’s a lessening of the English language leading to our eventual cultural ruin is pretty ridiculous.

    The “I’ll type full words with pride” mentality may explain why so many adults get blackberry thumb.

  4. English is a dynamic language, obviously. Look at the new words that appear every year! But, at the same time, as a teacher, I think part of my job is to model correct language usage to my students. When my student says “ain’t” to me, I know exactly what he means… but I’m not going to say it back to him.

    My students text me in chat speak, and I reply in standard English. I don’t correct them and they don’t correct me. We understand each other, and I don’t have to cringe at what I’ve typed.

    I have had students turn in work to me written in text speak. I have seen job applications with text speak on them. For bad or good, people make first impressions by how they communicate, and as I teacher, I want to model to how to communicate in such a way that my students will have the best chance at a good outcome.

    Absolutely you shouldn’t draw conclusions about someones literacy level or education based on text messages, but people do, and will. Sure the rules keep changing. Maybe all the vowels will eventually disappear from written language. Until they do, I’m going to keep following the rules…

  5. Carol, I like the tone of your comment, however I would argue that as teachers it is important that we let our students know that it is NOT appropriate to communicate in professional relationships using chat speak (especially with someone who has power over you), unless and until you find that person communicating to you in chat speak–and even then you may want to keep a professionalism in your writing.

  6. Unless you are texting with students I’m not sure how you can model anything. Even then, I really don’t care how anyone chooses to communicate/abbreviate/not abbreviate. What I dislike is the idea that choosing not to abbreviate gives you some sort of moral high ground in a language which will ultimately adapt and integrate whatever the masses decide is a good idea.

  7. Smug self-righteousness is annoying in any field. If that was your point, then I apologize for reading too much into your post. It seemed to me that you were reacting to an overly prescriptive mentality with an overly permissive one. I don’t doubt that you’re able to modulate your writing for your audience but, per Carol’s and my own experience, my students can’t, and they lean sharply to what’s easy and common, rather than what’s clear.

    Personally, I admire people who aspire to high standards of communication regardless of the medium – e-mail, IM, Twitter, text messaging, whatever – notwithstanding their smug self-righteousness.

  8. I don’t know how germane it is to this discussion that the following tweet was written by a sitting U.S. senator:

    Did Bfast Wloo Gates Optimist Pancakes. Helps w education at Cunningham school. Rest of Sat at finals HS Voleyball in CRapids.

    It’s certainly amusing, though.

  9. I think it’s fair to say that people are judged by how they choose to present themselves by using language. There is such a thing as code-switching (choosing the appropriate type of language for a situation). In some situations, it is a appropriate to use textspeak. In most, it is not.

    As an English teacher, I usually don’t use textspeak–not because I think I’m better than people who do, but because textspeak is unnatural to me and I don’t always feel it’s clear. I don’t think it’s a moral issue at all.

    Tom, I find it interesting that you’re reading a whole wad of superiority complexes into someone else’s choice not to code-switch. Does their lack of abbreviation hurt you in some way? To me, lambasting people for using proper English is just silly.

  10. I may very well have been unclear. The post was driven by a specific event and a very specific smugness that I found unpleasant. I ended with what I see as at least a semi-reasonable position.

    I’m not saying students should be able to write papers in text speak. I just want people to put this into context.

    The context being that texting isn’t the end of the world. English is not an unchanging, logical Platonic ideal. Try to relax.

    Haven’t students always picked up what’s easiest/most common? Isn’t one of the roles of school to teach students the harder things? English teachers (I was one) ought to be teaching people when and how to choose channels of communication as well as styles. I know mine did. I know I did as a teacher (Voice being a fundamental component of writing). If we did a better job of this we might avoid travesties like the tweet from the congressman above.

  11. Dancing,

    I wasn’t reading the superiority in. The post was based on a specific conversation. Looking back on it more critically, I see what you’re saying. I seem to demand that people use abbreviation and that was not my intent. I think I clarified that above. I’ll probably clarify it in the post.

  12. 1. (Re)read the entire OKcupid blog archives. Then made my own “Flowchart to my heart.” Hehe. This is not necessarily a good thing.

    2. When I IM my grammar disappears (mostly into lowercase fragments, I only abbreviate words I know I’ll misspell because spellcheck/dictionary takes too long in that format).

    When students first IMed me, I tried to stick to proper English, but quickly realized that’s not the way I communicate in that medium. Count me among those who model code-switching.

  13. Just when I think it’s safe to stop reading this blog (or Tom’s) something like this happens…

    The idea that different forms of language are appropriate (or effective) in different situations is probably pretty clear to most of the people reading this, but the Okcupid archives (what a fantastic source — can’t wait to use this in class. Thanks, Dan) and the conversation that provoked Tom’s post point to the fact that some people aren’t there yet. This includes my pupils, and I have come to consider raising awareness about different registers of language as a major part of my job. We’re seeing an increase in people’s job applications being rejected for poor spelling or inappropriate language, for instance. The increase in reading and writing that modern technology has produced lately may have opened a few pitfalls that we have to prepare our pupils for differently than schools have done earlier.

    (This is more complicated than just a range of registers, I know. I myself, for instance, might write ‘color’ in a text message, but would never have written it here without scare quotes. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Tom, I’m guessing you always write it that way.)