TEXT IN CONTEXT (btw, I’m not shouting)

by Mellissa Martinez


There was a period of time last year when my mother regularly texted me using all capital letters. Each time I checked my phone, I felt worried and a little angry to see messages like, “WHAT TIME DO YOU WANT ME TO GET FELIX?” or “WHERE ARE YOU?”

My mind would race with concern …did I forget to tell her? Am I in trouble? As it turns out, my thoughtful mother wasn’t actually yelling at me—she had been inadvertently activating the all caps button on her phone. For that month, however, her apparently aggressive, out-of-character texts were unnerving.

It is widely-accepted that the use of all capitals in written language represents shouting, but a few decades ago, this wasn’t a given. As I recall, one had the choice between all caps, italics, bold or an asterisk when emphasizing a word. Yes, all capital letters did carry an alarming tone, but in the days of typewriters, it seemed that the interpretation was up to the discretion of the recipient.

According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the shift came in the late 1980s from bloggers. Most bloggers, he said, made it very clear that all caps meant that they were yelling about something.

Another cause for confusion in text language is the use (or misuse) of abbreviations. Terms like OMG (oh, my God) and THX (thanks) are reasonable, but some combinations like ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing), 4YEO (for your eyes only) and B4N (bye for now) are absolutely confounding (at least for me). To make matters worse, a mistaken abbreviation can be quite offensive. Last year, someone responded LOL in a group message regarding a death in the family. People were confused: what do you mean LOL? This isn’t funny! Eventually we realized that LOL means ‘laugh out loud’ but is sometimes mistaken for ‘lots of love,’ hence the embarrassing blunder.

Since the ’80s, the frequency with which we communicate via writing has grown tremendously. In fact, many of us now text each other instead of speaking face-to-face, which means that we lose verbal cues of intonation to interpret meaning. Instead, we rely on tiny pictures called emoticons and emojis. Linguists refer to these guys as discourse markers. After all, they add tone and help convey how a message should be understood.

Consider the difference between I’ve had a bad day 🙂 and I’ve had a bad day 🙁 Although the words are the same, the meaning is quite different. In the first message, the happy face provides sarcasm or levity; it is quite possible that the sender had a great day. In the second example, we understand that the day was truly bad.

The word emoticon, from emotion + icon, is used to refer to smiley and sad faces in electronic writing. The first documented appearance of a smiley face used as an emoticon was in 1982. As the story goes, a professor at Carnegie Mellon proposed it as a means to decipher humorous posts from serious ones. After a decade or so, the keyboard options :), 🙂 and :0) evolved into the slightly more realistic J. In the late 1990s, a Japanese inventor took J to a new level by adding color and expressions and creating emoji, the wide range of tiny pictures such as horses, balloons, camels, party favors, thumbs up, etc. 

Last week, my sister sent a heartfelt text. It started out rather lengthy, with carefully considered words. Instead of writing her back and expressing my love and gratitude for her kind thoughts, I did what most people do—sent a tiny picture of a bright red heart. She replied with a pair of outstretched, hugging arms. I returned some double yellow hearts. She ended our loving exchange with a winking kissing face. Somehow, we had managed to have a meaningful conversation, which perfectly expressed how we felt, with very few words.

Although some purists may complain that technology is destroying the language and we are losing our ability to write, many linguists (including me) think that English is actually evolving through electronic writing.

Consider my mother’s seemingly angry texts. I could have taken them personally and responded: “I’M SO SORRY MOM! I should have communicated with you. Is everything okay? I hope you’re not angry. Please get Felix at 4 and I PROMISE I will be home soon.” However, as I see it, a much more logical and evolved response would be: “Pls get him at 4—thx! Btw, your caps are on LOL <3 J”


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