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Text Messaging and IM Linguistic Comparison of American College Data

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While instant messaging (IM) via computers is well entrenched in the United States, text messaging on mobile phones is a more recent technology in America. To investigate the emergence of American texting, this study compared text messages and IMs produced by American college students with respect to transmission length, emoticons and lexical shortenings, and sentential punctuation. We examine our findings in light of other statistical studies of texting and IM, and with respect to personal computer use in the United States that predates text messaging.
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Running Head: TEXT MESSAGING AND IM
Text Messaging and IM: Linguistic Comparison of American College Data
Rich Ling Naomi S. Baron
Telenor R&D American University
University of Michigan
Please address correspondence to:
Naomi S. Baron
Department of Language and Foreign Studies
American University
Washington, DC 20016-8045 USA
email: nbaron@american.edu
phone: 202-885-2455
fax: 301-229-4988
February 16, 2007
Text Messaging and IM
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ABSTRACT
While instant messaging (IM) via computers is well-entrenched in the United States, text
messaging on mobile phones is a more recent technology in America. To investigate the
emergence of American texting, this study compared text messages and IMs produced by
American college students with respect to transmission length, emoticons and lexical shortenings,
and sentential punctuation. We examine our findings in light of other statistical studies of texting
and IM, and with respect to personal computer use in the USA that pre-dates text messaging.
Keywords: Instant messaging, IM, text messaging, texting, SMS, computer-mediated
communication
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors gratefully acknowledge valuable input from Howard Giles in
preparing this Research Note. Correspondence should be addressed to Rich Ling, Telenor R&D,
Snarøyveien 31, 1331 Fornebu, Norway; e-mail: richard.ling@telenor.com or Naomi S. Baron,
Department of Language and Foreign Studies, Asbury 326, American University, Washington,
DC, 20016-8045, USA; e-mail: nbaron@american.edu.
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Among teenagers and young adults, two popular forms of one-to-one electronically-
mediated communication are instant messaging (IM), which is typically done via personal
computers, and transmission of text messages on mobile phones. Text messages are generally
limited to 160 characters, while IMs essentially have no upper limit. However, the input devices
are not comparable. While texting uses one thumb (or two) on a small phone keypad, perhaps
aided by predictive text software (Ling, 2005a), IM employs ten fingers on a full-sized computer
keyboard.
Most text messages are composed all of a piece and sent as single transmissions. With IM,
messages from a single interlocutor are commonly chunked into seriatim transmissions, yielding
a sequence of IMs together constituting an utterance (Baron, 2004). For example,
isn’t it nice [SEND]
to be in love [SEND]
in the spring [SEND]
With IM, once Internet access has been procured, messages do not have a per-unit price. By
contrast, texting in the USA has been charged per message transmitted. Commercial plans now
offer packages of messages or unlimited texting for a monthly fee, though texting charges remain
in addition to monthly subscription costs for voice calls. Outside the USA, both voice calls and
texts are unit-priced.
Text messaging began in Europe in 1993, with commercialization of the GSM mobile
phone network. Popularity of texting in Europe and Asia has been especially high among
teenagers and young adults: texting has been cheaper than voice calls, and many young people
lacked ready access to IM programs on personal computers. As of 2005, the USA had 76.2 PCs
Text Messaging and IM
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per 100 inhabitants, while Europe averaged 30.2.1 Internet usage shows a similar divergence:
69.6% of the American population versus 38.6% of Europeans.2
In Europe and Asia, mobile phones are well-established. For example, 95% of
Norwegians own mobiles, including 100% of teenagers. Approximately 70% of Norwegians
aged 19-24 report daily use of text messaging (Ling & Haddon, in press). In the USA, as of 2005,
69% owned mobile phones. Approximately 4% of everyone in the USA and 18% of those aged
18-24 used texting daily (Traugott, Joo, Ling, & Qian, 2006).
IM was introduced in the 1980s at several American universities. However, the
technology was not popularized until development of PC versions: ICQ in 1996 and America
Online’s own program in 1997 (Baron, 2003). AOL’s free software, AIM, is the most common
platform among American teenagers and college students, though alternatives include MSN
Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. By 2004, 48% of American youth aged 12 to 17 used IM
daily (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin, 2005).
IM is gaining ground in Europe,3 but the balance still heavily favors texting. By contrast,
IM is ubiquitous on American college campuses. Mobile phones are also becoming de rigueur,
and most students have at least experimented with text messaging. However, as of late 2005,
mobiles were used on US campuses more than twice as much for voice functions as for texting
(Baron & Ling, in preparation).
Linguistic analyses of texting have appeared for several languages (e.g., German: Döring,
2002; Swedish: Hård af Segerstad, 2002; Norwegian: Ling, 2005b, British English: Thurlow &
Brown, 2003). Among the stylistic features noted are abbreviations, acronyms, emoticons,
misspellings, and omission of vowels, subject pronouns, and punctuation. Since texting in the
USA is comparatively new, collecting texting data in the early 2000s was problematic. By
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contrast, IM has been amenable to research (e.g., Baron, 2004 and in Canada, Tagliamonte &
Denis, in preparation). These two statistically-based IM studies, along with Thurlow and
Brown’s texting analysis, reported that abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons were less
prevalent in young people’s computer-mediated communication than suggested by the popular
press. To move beyond media hyperbole, we need corpus-based analyses of such features as
abbreviations and punctuation. By collecting data from similar populations, we can compare the
linguistics of texting and IM.
A second lens through which to view texting and IM is prior familiarity with computer
technology. In the USA, middle-school and especially high-school students have been
encouraged for over a decade to produce written assignments on computers. College freshmen
arrive as proficient typists. Baron (2004) argued that the written sophistication of students’ IM is
consonant with prior experience on the same computer keyboards used for school compositions.
The question now is whether American texting is colored by prior experience with IM which, in
turn, reflects proficiency with word-processing.
Our three research questions were
Research Question 1: What are the linguistic characteristics of text messaging in the USA?
Research Question 2: How do these characteristics compare with IM in the USA?
Research Question 3: Is extensive prior experience with word processing and IM
reflected in American texting?
Findings reported here involve three linguistic areas.4 The first is length: How many
words and characters were there per transmission, how many one-word transmissions, and how
many sentences per transmission? The second is emoticons and lexical shortenings: How often
were emoticons, acronyms, abbreviations, and contractions used? With contractions, how many
Text Messaging and IM
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contained apostrophes? The third is sentential punctuation: How much punctuation appeared at
the ends of sentences, and was it haphazard or principled?
A convenience sample of text messaging data was collected in Fall 2005 using paper
diaries distributed to undergraduates at a large public mid-western university. Students were
asked to record exactly all text messages they sent over a 24-hour period. Twenty-five completed
diaries were returned (22 females, 3 males). Only the female data were analyzed. The resulting
corpus contained 191 text transmissions, with 1473 words. IM data were drawn from a corpus
collected in Spring 2003 from undergraduates at a mid-sized private university on the east coast.
From the full corpus, a random female sample of 191 IM transmissions was extracted, containing
1146 words.
Text messages averaged 7.7 words, while IM transmissions averaged 6.0 (F1,385 = 10.97,
p = 0.001). Recall that for IM transmissions, sequencing of consecutive transmissions is common.
Therefore, while individual text messages were longer than individual IMs, average length of a
complete conversational turn (combining seriatim transmissions) was longer in IM.
The mean number of characters per transmission in the texting data was also significantly
larger than in IM. Text messages averaged almost 35 characters,5 while the IM mean was just
under 29 characters (F1,404 = 5.80, p = 0.02). Another factor contributing to message length is
one-word transmissions. There were significantly fewer one-word text messages (7 out of 191, or
3.7%) than one-word IMs (36 out of 191, or 18.8%) (Chi2 (1) = 21.83, p < 0.001).
Almost 60% of texting transmissions contained multiple sentences, compared with 34%
of the IM transmissions (Chi2 (1) = 22.29, p < 0.001).6 The mean number of sentences per text-
message was 1.76, while the mean for IM was 1.27 (F1,380 = 38.62, p < 0.001). Since IMs are
commonly sent as consecutive transmissions without added cost, this finding is not surprising.
Text Messaging and IM
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Of the 1473 words in the texting corpus, only 2 were emoticons (both smileys). In the IM
corpus, out of 1146 words, there were 5 emoticons: 4 smileys and 1 frowny face. In the texting
corpus, only 8 acronyms appeared: 5 instances of lol (“laughing out loud”) and 1 each of ttyl
(“talk to you later”), omg (“oh my god”), and wtf (“what the [expletive]”). The IM corpus had 4
acronyms: 3 cases of lol and 1 ttyl.
There were marked differences between samples in use of abbreviations. The IM corpus
had no clear-cut abbreviations specific to online communication. One case of b/c (“because”)
occurred, but this abbreviation is commonly found in informal writing, and predates computer-
mediated communication. Three miscellaneous lexical shortenings appeared: ya (“you”), prob.
(“probably”), and em (“them”). However, these forms frequently appear in the informal speech
of American college students, and are not specific to IM.
By comparison, the texting corpus had 47 unambiguous abbreviations: 26 instances of U
(“you”), 9 cases of R (“are”), 4 examples of k (“OK”), 6 occurrences of 2 (“to” – both as a word
and as part of “today”), and 2 instances of 4 (“for” –as a word and as part of “before”). In
addition, the texting data contained words with vowel deletions: 2 instances of b (“be”), and 1
case each of latr (“later) and ovr (“over”). We cannot determine whether these examples
represent intentional shortenings or input errors. Nearly a dozen texting examples involved
miscellaneous lexical shortenings, e.g., Sun (“Sunday”) and tomm (“tomorrow”), only some of
which reflect casual speech, e.g., ya (“you”).
Contractions (e.g., can’t instead of cannot) typically appear in informal speech and
writing, and are shorter to type than full forms, especially when omitting the apostrophe. In
computer-based IM, apostrophes require only a single keystroke, while needing four key taps on
mobile phones. We calculated percent of full and contracted forms against total potential
Text Messaging and IM
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contractions. For apostrophes, we scored only use in contractions, not possessives (e.g.,
Mildred’s). In texting, 84.7% of all potential contractions were contracted. In IM, only 68.1%
were contracted (Chi2 (1) 9.246, p = 0.002). Far fewer apostrophes appeared in texting
contractions than in IM: 31.9% versus 93.9% (Chi2 (1) 47.784, p < 0.001).7
We examined punctuation at the ends of transmissions and the ends of sentences (since
many transmissions contained multiple sentences). We also tallied use of question marks at the
ends of semantically-interrogative sentences in comparison with use of periods, exclamation
marks, or equivalent punctuation (ellipses, dashes, commas, and emoticons) at the ends of
declaratives, imperatives, or exclamations.
Texting and IM followed similar patterns, with the proportion of texting punctuation
always lower than in IM. Total sentence-final punctuation was 39% for texting and 45% for IM.
Transmission-final punctuation appeared in only 29% of text messages and 35% of IMs.
However, for transmissions containing multiple sentences, the sentences not appearing at the
ends of transmissions had more sentence-final punctuation: 54% of text messages and 78% of
IMs, e.g.,
sentence 1: I mean I just want to see you… [punctuation used]
sentence 2: I’m just stressed and overwhelmed [no punctuation]
Logically, transmission-medial punctuation is more critical than transmission-final marks in
helping recipients interpret messages. In most cases, the act of sending a message coincides with
sentence-final punctuation.8
To compare question marks and periods (or equivalent marks), we divided each corpus
into two categories: semantic questions and “other”.9 More question marks were used to end
semantic questions than periods (or equivalents) to end other sentence types. In texting, 73% of
Text Messaging and IM
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semantic questions were ended with a question mark, while only 30% of “other” bore sentence-
final punctuation (Chi2 (1) = 38.56, p < 0.001). In IM, all (100%) of questions ended in question
marks, while only 41% of the remaining sentences were punctuated (Chi2 (1) = 29.50, p < 0.001).
More frequent use of “required” question marks may pragmatically highlight the request for a
response from the recipient.
Research Questions 1 and 2 concerned linguistic characteristics of text messaging in the
USA and how they compared with American IM. Tables 1 and 2 summarize the points of
similarity and difference presented in this study.
INSERT TABLES 1 AND 2 HERE
The paucity of emoticons and acronyms in both our texting and IM corpora is consonant
with studies in Canada and the UK. While there are no previous reports on sentential punctuation
in texting or IM, our data indicate that usage patterns are hardly scattershot. Students often
omitted transmission-final marks (especially periods), but their overall punctuation choices
tended to be communicatively pragmatic. The fact punctuation was consistently more prevalent
in IM than in texting probably reflects greater ease of input in IM.
American college-student texting and IM differed in several significant ways. Text
messages were consistently longer and contained more sentences, probably resulting from both
differential costing structures and the tendency of IM sequences (but not texts) to be sent
seriatim. Text messages contained significantly more abbreviations than IMs, but even the
number in texting was small. Reanalyzing our data to more closely approximate Thurlow and
Brown’s scoring rubric, the American texting corpus contained less than 5% abbreviated words,
compared with Thurlow and Brown’s nearly 19% for a sample of mostly British female college
students in Wales.
Text Messaging and IM
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Our texting and IM data also diverged with respect to contractions and apostrophes: more
contractions appeared in texting, but texting used only one-third the apostrophes found in IM.
Greater use of contractions in texting could reflect the higher tendency to use abbreviated forms
(compared with IM), which in turn is consonant with an awkward input device. Paucity of
apostrophes in texting undoubtedly results from input complexity.
Research Question 3 asked whether prior experience with word processing and IM is
reflected in American texting. The answer is unclear, especially in light of differences between
input devices. Many Americans have little practice texting on phone keypads. Thurlow and
Brown’s participants sent messages twice as long as American texts (14 words vs. 7.7; 65
characters vs. 35), which may reflect their students’ more extensive texting experience.
Alternatively, longer British texts may result from limited access to IM (where seriatim
transmissions commonly exceed 14 words) or cultural differences.10
Explanations for uncontracted versus contracted forms in American texting are not self-
evident. The fact uncontracted forms were used at all (13 out of 85 potential contractions) might
reflect keyboard writing habits, as in IM, or intentional adoption of more formal written style for
particular text messages. Alternatively, uncontracted forms might be used to avoid the
complexity of creating apostrophes. The resulting formal expression would, essentially, be a
typing shortcut. Apostrophe use is also not simply explained. Insertion of 23 apostrophes (out of
72 contractions) might reflect computer keyboard experience. However, Thurlow and Brown
also reported use of apostrophes in their data,11 so the issue may be general knowledge of
punctuation rules, regardless of input medium.
In the future, focus groups with college students would enhance our understanding of
how students craft text messages (e.g., intentionally using punctuation to make a good
Text Messaging and IM
11
impression, consciously using or avoiding abbreviations). Within the USA, longitudinal studies
of both texting and IM would indicate how texting evolves with practice, and how its
relationship to IM shifts. Outside the USA, it would be instructive to track how texting is
affected by increased use of IM and word-processing outside North America.
NOTES
1. International Telecommunications Union. Retrieved on February 2, 2007, from
http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Indicators/Indicators.aspx.
2. Internet World Stats. Retrieved on February 2, 2007, from
http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.
3. Le Monde (January 9, 2005) reported an IM craze in France. About one-third of young
people aged 12 to 25 were said to be using it, largely via MSN Messenger.
4. Other linguistic features we explored, such as ellipses, are omitted here for brevity.
5. Approximately one-third of the participants reported using predictive texting software.
6. Calculating sentential units per transmission entails deciding which elements to count
as full sentences (e.g., ok, haha, whatever, seriously) and which to count as components of a
preceding or following sentence (e.g., hey Jane, besides, hon. [=honey]). Capitalization, commas,
and periods are not always reliable guides. Our criterion was whether the element commonly
appeared as a stand-alone word (or phrase) in the speech of young adults.
7. Squires (2005) reported a similar finding in her study of college-student IM. In popular
IM programs, there is no spell-check function that automatically inserts apostrophes.
8. However, in IM, not all transmissions conclude with the end of a sentence see Baron,
in press.
Text Messaging and IM
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9. In texting, 18.6% of all sentential units were questions, compared with 9.9% of IMs
(Chi2 (1) = 8.44, p = 0.004). Nearly 90% of texting questions involved coordination of activity,
compared with 10% of IM questions.
10. Norwegian texts averaged 6.9 words and 29-46 characters, depending upon whether
they used predictive texting (Ling, 2005a).
11. Thurlow and Brown do not distinguish between apostrophes used in contractions
versus possessives.
REFERENCES
Baron, N.S. (2003). Language of the Internet. In A. Farghali (Ed.), The Stanford handbook for
language engineers (pp. 59-127). Stanford, California: CSLI.
Baron, N.S. (2004). See you online: Gender issues in college student use of instant messaging.
Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 23, 397-423.
Baron, N.S. (in press). Discourse structures in instant messaging: The case of utterance breaks.
To appear in S. Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated conversation. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton
Press.
Baron, N.S., & Ling, R. (in preparation). Emerging patterns of American mobile phone use:
Electronically-mediated communication in transition.
Döring, N. (2002). “Kurzm. wird gesendet” – Abkürzungen und Akronyme in der SMS-
Kommunikation. Muttersprache. Vierteljahresschrift für deustsche Sprache, 2.
Hård af Segerstad, Y. (2002). Use and adaptation of written language to the conditions of
computer-mediated communication. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Linguistics,
Text Messaging and IM
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Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden. Retrieved February 16, 2007, from
http://www.ling.gu.se/%7eylvah/dokument/ylva_diss.pdf.
Lenhart, A., Madden, M., & Hitlin, P. (2005). Teens and technology. Pew Internet & American
Life Project, July 27. Retrieved February 16, 2007, from
http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Tech_July2005web.pdf.
Ling, R. (2005a, October). The length of text messages and the use of predictive texting: Who
uses it and how much do they have to say? Paper presented at the Association of Internet
Researchers, Chicago, IL.
Ling, R. (2005b). The socio-linguistics of SMS: An analysis of SMS use by a random sample of
Norwegians. In R. Ling & P. Pedersen (Eds.), Mobile communications: Re-negotiation of the
social sphere (pp. 335-349). London: Springer.
Ling, R., & Haddon, L. (in press). Mobile emancipation: Children, youth, and the mobile
telephone. To appear in K. Dortner & S. Livingstone (Eds.), International handbook of
children, media, and culture. London: Sage.
Squires, L. (2005, October). Whats the use of apostrophes? Gender differences and linguistic
variation in instant messaging. Paper presented at the Association of Internet Researchers,
Chicago, IL.
Tagliamonte, S., & Denis, D. (in preparation). LOL for real! Instant messaging, teen language
and linguistic change.
Thurlow, C., & Brown, A. (2003). Generation Txt? The sociolinguistics of young people’s text-
messaging. Discourse Analysis Online. Retrieved February 16, 2007, from
http://extra.shu.ac.uk/daol/articles/v1/n1/a3/thurlow2002003-paper.html.
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Traugott, M., Joos, S.-H., Ling, R., & Qian, Y. (2006). On the move: The role of cellular
communication in American life. Pohs Report on Mobile Communication. Ann Arbor, MI:
University of Michigan.
BIOGRAPHIES
Rich Ling (Ph.D., University of Colorado) is a senior researcher at Telenor R&D and has an
adjunct position at the University of Michigan. His interests include the social consequences of
mobile telephony. He is author of The mobile connection, and along with Per Pedersen has co-
edited Mobile communications: Re-negotiation of the social sphere. Ling’s forthcoming book is
Mediated ritual communication.
Naomi S. Baron (Ph.D., Stanford University) is a professor of linguistics at American University
in Washington, DC. Her research interests include computer-mediated communication, the
influence of technology on spoken and written language, and the history and structure of English.
Author of Alphabet to email: How written English evolved and where it’s heading, her
forthcoming book is Always on: Language in an online and mobile world.
Text Messaging and IM
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Table 1
Similarities between American Text Messaging and IM
______________________________________________________________________________
Feature Texting IM
Emoticons and lexical shortenings
emoticons .001% of words .004% of words
acronyms .005% of words .003% of words
Sentence punctuation
overall sentence punctuation 39% of sentences 45% of sentences
transmission-final punctuation 29% of sentences 35% of sentences
transmission-internal punctuation 54% of sentences 78% of sentences
use of required question mark 73% of questions 100% of questions
use of required period 30% of other sentences 41% of other sentences
Text Messaging and IM
16
Table 2
Differences between American Text Messaging and IM
______________________________________________________________________________
Feature Texting IM
Length transmissions (in words) 7.7 words 6.0 words
transmissions (in characters) 35 characters 29 characters
one-word transmissions 3.7% of messages 18.8% of messages
multi-sentence transmissions 60% of messages 34% of messages
sentences per transmission 1.76 per transmission 1.27 per transmission
Emoticons and lexical shortenings
abbreviations 3.2% of words 0% of words
contractions 84.7% of potential 68.1% of potential
apostrophes 31.9% of contractions 93.9% of contractions
... Popular articles on the full-stop's potential negativity have run in The New York Times (Bilefsky, 2016;Yagoda, 2012) and The New Republic (Crair, 2013). Scholars who have investigated full-stop use in text messages have found that full-stops are often omitted at the end of text messages because they are unnecessary (Baron, 2008;Baron & Ling, 2011;Ling & Baron, 2007) and that when they are included, they can convey negativity and a lack of sincerity (Gunraj et al., 2016;Houghton et al., 2018;Reynolds et al., 2017). In a medium famous for exuberant punctuation devices such as exclamation points and emoji, it is not hard to see how pragmatically unnecessary full-stops at the end of transmissions might come to be seen as unenthused, sarcastic, or even caustic. ...
... The periods in the elicited text messages were analyzed according to two methods: First, a basic content analysis was conducted (Herring, 2004a(Herring, , 2004bKrippendorff, 1980) to get an overall understanding of relative uses of full-stops in each emotional context. Full-stops were distinguished as transmission medial or transmission final for this content analysis (Ling & Baron, 2007). Second, the full-stops were analyzed semiotically that is, the punctuation marks were examined according to the speech acts they accompanied in order to determine what, if any, affect may be associated with them. ...
... Because these DCTs would not call for sarcastic or negatively valence responses, we can conclude that the full-stop is not a device that is solely negative. Second, full-stops were used sparingly; and especially sparingly at the end of messages, further validating the conclusions of Baron (2008), Baron and Ling (2011), and Ling and Baron (2007). Third, more transmission medial and transmission final full-stops were used in response to the second DCT than the other DCTs. ...
... Students during online classes and chats were found to use the following varieties of words in English most frequently at the: In addition, the student corpus during online classes and chats found that the following varieties in language were most commonly used: word replacement, word replacement with digits, abbreviation, and nontraditional spelling of words. This conclusion is aligned with previous studies (CRYSTAL, 2008;LYDDY, 2011;LING, 2005;LING;BARON, 2007;LYDDY et al., 2014;TAGLIAMONTE;DENIS, 2008;THURLOW;BROWN, 2003); Lyddy et al. (2014), in their research, found that 25% of the corpus used nontraditional spelling. In a study by Thurlow and Brown (2003), the percentage of the abbreviated form found in the corpus sample is 19% of the total content. ...
... Ling (2005) demonstrated that only 6% of the common words in the Norwegian group texts were abbreviated. Meanwhile, Ling and Baron (2007) found that less than 5% of the corpus were abbreviated words, and the rest were standard forms. Farina and Lyddy (2011) found that the most common signs of electronic discourse were in nontraditional spelling, word combinations, and less common e-ISSN: 2447-3529 DOI: https://doi.org/10.29051/el.v7i00.15954 ...
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Both users of CMC and the popular press commonly assume that online platforms such as email and instant messaging (IM) mirror informal spoken language. The present study investigates the validity of this assumption by examining discourse structures in IM conversations between American college students. Linguistic features of spoken and written language were first compared both paradigmatically and empirically, drawing particularly on research on intonation units by Chafe (1980, 1994). A subsequent fine-grained analysis of the grammatical points at which subjects chunked their IM turns into multiple transmissions revealed that while IM conversations between male dyads tended to resemble spoken discourse according to this dimension, IM conversations between females bore more similarities to traditional written language.