IM Shorthand Slips Off Computer Screens And Into Schoolwork

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

Zoe Bambery, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, might send more than 100 instant messages -- IMs -- during a typical evening. So during the SAT exam, the 18-year-old found herself inadvertently lapsing into IM-speak, using "b/c" instead of "because" as she scrambled to finish her essay.

She caught herself and now is careful to proofread before hitting print. But she is hardly the only student to find IM phrases creeping into schoolwork.

"They are using it absolutely everywhere," said Sara Goodman, an English teacher at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County who has worn out many purple and red markers circling the offending phrases in papers and tests.

Wendy Borelli, a seasoned English teacher at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, finds photo captions for the school yearbook sprinkled with shorthand such as "B4" and "nite." A student who left on a brief errand to the office announced he would "BRB."

In 2004, 16 million teenagers used instant messages to communicate, up from 13 million in 2000, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Students say IM language has become so ubiquitous they often do not realize they have lapsed into it.

"It's just natural. I had to learn not to do it" in papers, ChiChi Aniebonam, 17, said about her proficiency in IM. "I'm in AP literature, where you just can't put it into your writing, but when I'm writing something informal, now and again I use it."

Text messaging and instant messaging allow instant communication via phone or computer. But because the number of characters that can be used to convey a message can be limited, it has given rise to a whole new language. A phrase like "I know what you mean" is reduced to "IKWUM" in text-speak; "OTFL" translates to "on the floor laughing."

"The biggest problem for me is I don't IM, so I don't know what they're saying," said Allison Finn, who teaches AP English at Blake High School in Silver Spring. "They'll say things like 'TTYL,' [talk to you later] and I don't know what they're talking about."

It's not just teenagers. Some college professors say the lingo is popping up at their level as well.

Jeff Stanton, an associate professor in the school of information sciences at Syracuse University, said sometimes he is taken aback at how informal students have become in the way they communicate.

Stanton shared one of his favorite pieces of correspondence: "hi prof how are u culd u tell me my xm grade - tim."

"It bothers me at one level, but I try not to let it get under my skin," he said. "But I am concerned [students] won't be successful if they don't know how to communicate on a formal basis. The first time they send a goofy message to the boss, they're going to be out."

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