Google: “how can u” vs. “how can an individual” is not really about grammar

Have you seen this meme? Actually, this example has very little to do with grammar. What matters here is context.

Yes, I got a chuckle over this, but if we present this as evidence of a link between grammar and class / morality / character, that requires a bit of circular thinking.

First of all, the substitution of “u” for “you” has nothing to do with grammar, it’s just a shortcut often made by people who are typing on phones. Typing “u” for “you” does not affect the function the word plays in the sentence (grammar), though of course the word choice (diction) will affect the reader’s interpretation of the message.

My students can all shift between formal and informal language when the situation requires it, though they don’t always choose to make the effort. If you are trying to keep up with six different texting conversations, with people who all understand and use common abbreviations, the extra time it takes to type out the full words (and to capitalize and punctuate) is just not worth the penalty you pay (in that each message will take you about 5x longer to type).

More important, the typical person who uses a phone to search the Internet on any topic is going to be young, and therefore less likely to have gone to college to learn the kind of formal language that society sees as a marker of class and education.

But that’s not the only self-selection going on here.

A Googler who chooses to search for “an individual” rather than “u” or “you” or even “a person” is probably thinking of a word that contrasts with “society,” and that will affect the nature if the results being returned.

This is really a question of context.


Update, Aug 30 2013:

Every couple of weeks, this blog entry gets a burst of traffic as the “how can u” meme continues to propagate. I do enjoy the lively discussions. If you’d like to let me know where the meme is spreading now, and what brought you to this page, I’d be happy to know.

Some clarifications:

  1. Since I wrote this post, I have purchased a “feature phone” with a full baby-tooth keyboard. While I no longer have to wrestle with a numerical keypad, it is still tedious typing out messages, so I still do feel the urge to abbreviate.
  2. When I am in a meeting and I get a text that says the person my kid was going to ride with can’t make the pickup time, I care less about whether my college professors would approve of my writing, and more about whether I can handle this little crisis before my colleagues sitting across the table from me get annoyed at me for being distracted. So…. I’m an English professor, and when I write text messages, I occasionally use text-message abbreviations. (Feel free to judge me.)
  3. I would not want my students to use “how can u” in a research paper, because the expectations of what is “correct” in a research paper differ from what is “correct” in a text message.
  4. I wrote this blog entry not to defend “how can u” but to challenge the idea that the problem with “how can u” is that it’s ungrammatical. Grammar has to do with the function words play in a sentence. Both “you” and “u” play the same role in the sentence, but a different set of symbols is used to represent the word.
  5. I didn’t mention this in my original blog, but the “you” vs “u” is an issue of orthography — the way written symbols represent the sounds of a language. Under “orthography,” linguists would class spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, etc.
  6. Similarly, the choice of “how can u” vs “how can an individual” has to do with informal vs formal context. While “you” can both mean “the specific person I am addressing” and “some indefinite person,” the more specific phrasing “an individual” is not any more grammatically correct than “you,” though as the examples show, the more specific phrasing does affect the results Google returns.
  7. While teachers and textbooks may often present spelling lessons along with grammar lessons, and books with “grammar” in the title may also aim to teach spelling, putting your boots in the oven won’t make them biscuits.