A defense of text-speak
Apr 16, 2023

The digital age revolutionized interpersonal communication to an extent never seen before. It allows us to constantly be in touch with our friends, whether they’re a short walk away or halfway across the planet. Its most widespread product is texting, a uniquely casual and short-form method of written communication. With new technology comes new conventions and rules surrounding it, commonly pioneered by the younger generation. These conventions, which I call ‘text-speak’, resemble a new language, brought on by the need to convey as much tone and meaning using an already constricted written lexicon.

Text-speak is often scrutinized and cast as juvenile by folks more accustomed to its predecessors. The all-lowercase sentences, deliberate misuse of punctuation, and abundance of acronyms and emojis seem chaotic and improper to someone not used to it. However, all these conventions are remarkably calculated, consistent, and deliberate. I greatly admire the organic formation of this digital-age language and all the quirks text-speak has to offer, and I’ll try my best to explain how these typing conventions came to be, what exactly they are meant to convey, and what they can teach us about conveying meaning in written communication going forward.

Modern text-speak evolved from the days of typing texts out on flip phones. In the era where it took four whole taps of the 7 key to write a single S, efficiency became the most important factor. Flip-phone texting came to resemble a secret code that aimed to minimize keypresses, full of acronyms and numbers that were hard to decipher. Phrases like ‘talk to you later’ and even the word ‘later’ got shortened to ‘ttyl’ and ‘l8r,’ respectively, as it took too much time to type out the full words themselves, let alone adding capital letters and punctuation. Modern smartphones now come with a full keypad, autocorrect, and swipe typing, speeding up typing messages on phones considerably, so there is little need to keep using these numeric abbreviations and acronyms anymore. However, many of the acronyms and slang terms popularized in the flip-phone era still show themselves in today’s text-speak, especially where brevity is necessary.

One of the most apparent aspects of text-speak is the all-lowercase sentences. One may assume this is due to pure laziness, where texters don’t want to go through the effort of hitting the ‘shift’ key on their keypads. However, the opposite is true: most smartphones come with auto-capitalization enabled by default, which capitalizes the first letter of each sentence and any proper nouns that are recognized. To type in all-lowercase, texters now have to turn autocorrect off entirely or manually change each capital letter to lowercase before sending their message. It seems very counterintuitive to do this; why go through the effort of deliberately breaking capitalization rules before you send a message? Is it just done to seem apathetic, like someone who doesn’t care about rules? A closer look actually shows the contrary.

Texters know they have a very limited amount of characters at their disposal, as only lowercase letters, capital letters, special characters, and emoji can be used in SMS messaging. Capitalization by itself doesn’t convey much meaning, only serving to make sentences a bit easier to discern and making proper nouns easier to recognize. Oftentimes, capitalization is not needed at all to extract the full meaning from a sentence. By removing capitalization from their sentences, texters are able to assign a whole new meaning to both capital and lowercase letters. This turns an all-lowercase sentence into one that is casual and at times sarcastic and an all-uppercase sentence into one that is urgent, angry, or emotional. Even traditionally-formatted sentences can be added in a text-speak conversation to indicate formality.

Capital and lowercase letters can be interchanged at random to indicate a taunting or mocking tone, or each letter of a word can be capitalized to indicate a joke or heavy sarcasm.

This turns lowercase and capital letters into a playground of tones, and makes text-speak sentences much more packed with meaning than sentences using traditional capitalization rules.

Another quirk that stands out is a lack or abundance of punctuation, done for the exact same reason. By omitting all but the most basic punctuation rules, many more tones of speech can be portrayed. Periods convey an oddly serious tone, so a more casual message can be split up into multiple smaller messages without ending punctuation. The opposite can also be done, adding periods to the end of messages to make them more serious. Commas can be added where they usually aren’t found, mimicking pauses inherent in spoken English, and filler words such as ‘like’ are inserted into sentences to emphasize a certain word or phrase. Some also stack two commas after one another to indicate an even larger pause, as if they’re at a loss for words or trying to formulate their thoughts. Typing multiple exclamation or question marks in a row amplifies their effects, and a space can be inserted between a word and ending punctuation to indicate cluelessness.

A barrage of misspelled words and extra punctuation can resemble Tumblr-era ‘cry-speak’, used to show a lot of remorse or excitement, sometimes sarcastically.

This comment seems to be an excited recap of a fan-comic based off the TV show Carebears. It aims to be intentionally vague and chaotic, which conveys the sense of excitement about the events that supposedly happen in the comic.

In contrast, apostrophes are still widely used in modern text-speak, even though most messages can be understood without them. Apostrophes aren’t repurposed in text-speak like other punctuation, so there is no harm in leaving them in sentences. Modern phone autocorrect automatically inserts apostrophes into words that need them, so in most cases, it’s most efficient to leave apostrophes as-is.

Now that emojis have been a staple in texting for more than 10 years, their meaning has changed considerably. Emojis are now used almost exclusively in a joking manner, and any earnest and frequent use of them is an indicator that someone is not a teenager or a young adult. Same goes with emoticons such as “:)”, “XD”, and “:P”—their use is primarily ironic.

This comment aims to poke fun at a style of comment popular among Generation X and Baby Boomers on social media apps like Facebook. Ones who use this style of antiquated text-speak are cast as ‘NPCs’, a term for characters in video games not controlled by the player.

However, some of the younger generation—including me—have embraced the serious use of emojis and special character faces, almost as if we’re trying to capture the nostalgia of the time where their serious use was widely accepted.

Emojis are also used to get around social media content filters, where words for drugs like marijuana and prescription pills are substituted with a leaf or pill emoji.

Like emojis, acronyms are still used widely in modern text-speak. “lol” is surprisingly versatile, with some uses not even involving the fact that someone has actually laughed out loud. Instead, it’s often placed at the end of a sentence as a de facto “tone indicator”, used to imply a joke or a playful attitude when the meaning could possibly be perceived literally. Oddly enough, the adherence to traditional grammar and punctuation rules is used to convey meaning, too. It has become a trend to ironically use correct grammar and emojis to resemble someone of the older generation not accustomed to modern text-speak.

Text-speak itself isn’t a monolith—older generations also play with grammar and punctuation rules to make their own version of text-speak. Periods are often replaced with ellipses in an attempt to work around their seriousness, which creates long, seemingly run-on sentences. Ending punctuation is often omitted for short phrases and longer thoughts are sometimes split up into multiple messages. While some older folks have adapted well to text-speak, it is generally used less frequently the older someone is.

Image from High Net Worth article “Why Do Boomers Text the Way They Do?” by Angela Low. Examples are in white text bubbles.

Teens and young adults see these conventions as an indicator that someone is older, and some will change their own typing conventions accordingly—some aspects of text-speak are omitted out of the fear that they would be misunderstood. This has an interesting byproduct of “shielding” the younger text-speak from those who aren’t familiar with it.

Text-speak can take dramatically different forms depending on which communities you’re talking within. While the fundamental rules remain, the lexicon of a Tumblr user is drastically different than that of a 4chan, Reddit, Snapchat, or Discord user. They can even vary within the same online space—for example, Reddit’s different sub-communities, called Subreddits, converse in vastly different ways. Take, for example, the differences between the ‘r/funny’ and ‘r/dogelore’ subreddits. The r/funny subreddit is much more popular, broad, and established, which brings not only a wider range of internet users, but an older viewer base on average. This is reflected in the most upvoted comments on a post—they adhere more to traditional grammar rules and use emoticons in earnest.

In contrast, the r/dogelore subreddit is centered around a once-antiquated character named Doge, which has since seen a resurgence with a much younger crowd of teens and young adults. This is reflected in the comment sections of posts, where punctuation is used sparingly, cry-speak is used ironically, and inside jokes are extremely common.

These differences can often create an in-group and an out-group within text-speak itself, much like those who use or don’t use text-speak entirely. It can make it harder for people to join these communities, as it takes changing how you express yourself on a fundamental level to fit in. However, text-speak can also foster a group of close-knit people that are able to freely express their opinions and emotions knowing that they will be interpreted correctly by the people around them. Text-speak is a prime example of how people are able to adapt to the limitations they are given. It is astonishing how much meaning can be given to the few keys we have at our disposal. While other forms of online communication have grown more popular, such as GIFs, emojis, voice chats, and video calls, much of our modern communication is still conveyed using text-speak. It feels like an open playground to express any thought and tone you want, especially when augmented with other media such as photos and GIFs. It’s an art to be learned and studied, and should be seen as a perfectly legitimate form of written communication, just like emails, literature, and letters.

As far as I know, text-speak is here to stay—it is simply used too universally to ever fade into obscurity. Although, I can also confidently predict that text-speak will resemble something very different a decade or two from now, just like how text-speak evolved from its roots in flip-phone texting. As the technology we use changes, the way we will communicate using technology will also change, and the quirks we use today will have much different meanings in the future. They may even be replaced entirely by something newer and more expressive. This organic collection of rules will keep changing ever-so-slightly, possibly to a point that our generation will be mocked for using an antiquated text-speak. Especially for younger people, it’s a necessity to stay up-to-date on the newest slang terms and writing conventions of text-speak, or else you run the risk of your messages being misinterpreted and your meaning falling through the cracks. For now, there is no choice but to adapt to the ever-changing unwritten rules of text-speak—unless you want to risk being called a “boomer” online by a bunch of faceless teenagers.