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.

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

  1. Pingback: Speak Well, Change the World | Randy Ridenour

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  3. So your premise is that the difference between the set of search topics for “how can u” and “how can an individual” is not due to a difference in education level, but that people using cellphones search for “how can u mend a broken heart” while people on computers search for “how can an individual buy stock”….that’s what you’re saying? Get real. Seven out of nine of the “how can u” topics are venereal diseases. You can’t honestly believe that people who are looking up medical conditions are more likely to choose to do that on their phones? I think you might be stretching just a bit to whitewash whatever social reality it is that is making you feel uncomfortable. Don’t you hate it when Bill O’Reilly is intellectually dishonest? Guess what, when you do it, it isn’t any more attractive.

  4. If you compare how can you to how can u (same context different spelling) in google how can you only has negligibly “better” results.

  5. So…. I’m an English professor, and when I write text messages, I occasionally use text-message abbreviations. (Feel free to judge me.)
    You’ve used a four part ellipses in the beginning of a sentence about you being an English teacher. You ended the sentence correctly, but began a new sentence that was nothing but parenthesis with words inside and HAS A PERIOD BEFORE THE PARENTHESIS ENDS.

    • And you’ve omitted the hyphen in “four-part,” used the singular article “a” with plural word “ellipses,” and you’ve used all caps. What has either of us accomplished by pointing out these details?

      • I Would like to say that it would not matter how educated the user actually is but how educated he chooses to be while searching

  6. I began posting a reply but I erased it when I found myself replying to what a person has written about a meme. Something that is meant to be funny, and nothing else.

    I’ll ask “u”, though, if you think an educated person would ever need to ask google about how one contracts aids? ^^

  7. This is like English teachers defending the “art” of Ebonics. It seems you just upgraded to a 1990’s phone, which is great; however, most modern smartphones automatically turn “u” into “you” in order to correct grammar issues. Point being: most people that search the internet on mobile will have smartphone. An individual (see what I did there) has to attempt to put the letter “u” intentionally in order for the device to allow you to continue.

  8. Dennis, I know this is over a year late, but I have to disagree partly. I agree fully with your two final sentences, which form the important part of your post. But I will disagree on the first statements. While substituting “u” for “you” is not a matter of grammar, it is not merely shorthand. It doesn’t take 5x longer to type a complete word on a phone – if it does, it means the user has opted not to use the T9 or other form of predictive text built into the phone. Yes, on a smartphone with keyboard, it will take 3x longer to type the word “you” than “u”. On a conventional numeric keypad, it takes 2 strokes to get “u” and 4 strokes to get “4”, compared to 3 strokes for “you” and four strokes for “four”. It shouldn’t be necessary to attend college in order to have the most basic understanding of language. It is one thing to shorten words when texting a friend, and another thing to search using shorthand spelling. The meme incorrectly compares apples with oranges. It would have been more accurate to show search results for “how do u” vs “how do you”. In this comparison, we do see a difference, albeit a much more subtle one. Still, that difference does illustrate a correlation between poor spelling and search keywords. It may well be that an individual chooses to use “u” whenever he/she searches for things like herpes, and uses “you” whenever he/she searches for ways to change the world, but I doubt it’s very likely.

    • I disagree that it’s comparing apples and oranges. If somebody is accustomed to typing one way to their friends, that is the way they are going to type their Google searches. It really comes down to how much they type in other areas. I do a lot of writing/typing in my profession where it is important that it is at least mostly correct. Therefore that is what I’m used to and it carries over to what I type when I’m texting friends or Googling. Some people only type when they’re texting their friends or searching and so they have no real reason to worry about correctness as long as they get their point across and get their search results. It doesn’t mean they are dumb or ignorant, it’s just how they type.

  9. a more interesting comparison, in my opinion, would be comparing Google’s suggestions on “how can u” and “how can you”. With a precursory look, they are not that much different:
    with U
    Get HIV
    Get herpes
    Get pregnant
    with you
    mend a broken heart
    get herpes
    get HIV

    Not much difference!

  10. There doesn’t seem to be anyone stating the obvious here… That the comparison is not in fact between using you and u. The second search is a grammatically correct phrase which is usually incorrectly used in the form shown by the first search phrase. Conclusion… This is solely a grammatical issue.

  11. I find it atrocious that as a writing teacher you condone such behavior. This phenomenon does NOT just extend to texting. It DOES have a tangible effect on the writing of young people, and that effect is markedly observable. Knowing the rule and not opting to use it doesn’t make a valid defense. If you know the rule and how something is spelled and you don’t use it, then it’s as bad as, if not worse than, simply not knowing any better. I don’t buy the time factor. No one’s writing a treatise on their phones and the typical text message is already short enough to be communicated in bursts. The time you spend writing correctly in a text or on a phone is NOT that intrusive.

    The number of pre-teens and young teens with iphone 5s and other varieties of smartphones these days is staggering. The day of a numerical keypad is pretty much gone. The day of limited texts and expensive texts are gone. The day of having to watch how many characters you input into your message is gone. Those were all the valid reasons to shorten your phrases, I’ll agree. The problem is, it is now a social convention to be lazy. To send out a text that looks like someone with a brain wrote it is, in a lot of circles, considered ‘stuck-up’ or ‘nerdy’. You may not see a fall in your students’ writing ability yet, but you will if this devastating trend of ‘communicating well means you’re a pretentious douchebag’ continues. As a teacher, you should understand the impact that these things have on young people. The internet click and subculture is HIGHLY underrated by educators. The sad fact of the world is that they spend far more time here on the internet than they do thinking about your classes, your homework, or the lessons you’ve taught them. Just because this is becoming a commonplace convention on the internet does not mean it is not detrimental or can not lead to detriment in the future.

  12. 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

    Interesting. I didn’t know you had to go to college to know the difference between “you” and “u”

  13. I think the use for shortcuts is obsolete because of QWERTY keyboards on phones nowadays. Yes, at one time when you had to press a button 3 or 4 times to get one letter and pay per text, I could see how it was easier for text speak. Now with unlimited text, there is no excuse to want to shorten your text. It’s just being lazy now. It saves no time whatsoever.

    • Thanks for your comment. Sadly, I still use an old numeric keypad phone, so what was true about thumb-typing not too many years ago is still true for me, but I’m aware I’m being deliberately retro.

  14. I’m sorry, but the idea of time being an issue for proper grammar is ridiculous. I’m 26, and I’ve had a cell phone for ten years. In those ten years, I have never once sent a text containing “u” or shortened a word of any kind. I even make sure that any word that should be capitalized is.

    Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but if it really is that difficult to spell correctly and have proper grammar, further education is needed. I don’t want to live in a world where no teenager knows how to spell “definitely” and can’t be bothered to type THREE letters instead of one.

    I never went to college, I’m just a smart person. I don’t text people that don’t type full sentences, or use punctuation. To me, it is a sign of stupidity, and I don’t have time for stupidity.

    It’s not complicated, people in this world are just lazy and don’t care about anything.

    • I guess I fall somewhere in the middle on this. I care a lot less about “u” vs. “you” than I do about “your” vs. “you’re”, for example. Everyone knows that “u” is short for “you”, but I swear, some people do NOT know when to use “you’re”.

      I think typing “u” is more cultural than anything else. People want to fit in with other people that are like them in some way. And the people I want to fit in with happen to type “you”. My mom, on the other hand, has this notion that “u” is the “cool” way to write it, so she does that. Not everyone’s motive is laziness nor convenience nor character limits, though it may have started that way. Sometimes, you just want to do what the people you identify with will be the most accepting of.

      Ultimately, language is nothing but a means to communicate. It’s only WRONG when what you say is ambiguous or unclear. Nothing is ambiguous or unclear about “u” in place of “you”. But just like body language, intonation, etc., your writing style says more than the words you write. You do convey something to your reader based on abbreviations, slang, capitalization, etc., and what you convey all depends on your reader’s attitude towards the whole thing. I would never NOT capitalize or look up the spelling of a word I was unsure about in a public Facebook post, for example. But I might if I was just sending an IM to my sister (who I know isn’t judging a damn thing I write).

      • And yes, the use of abbreviations has nothing much to do with “grammar,” as grammar has to do with the order of phrases within an utterance, and (in writing) the punctuation which helps us identify them. Even most linguists wouldn’t have much to say on the subject, and, if they did, they’d probably be indifferent to abbreviations. Seems to be more of a social issue than a competence thing.

  15. “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.”

    If that’s the case, then shouldn’t you be raising as stink over the fact that “young people” do not know what causes herpes, HIV, aids, chlamydia, mono, mend a broken heart, lose weight fast, get HPV or hepatitis C? That’s because it’s an absurd argument.

  16. “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.” is an incorrect statement. Just because “U” is acceptable shorthand when texting doesn’t make it grammatically correct in any use, and yes, that is incorrect grammar.

    I will however agree that it’s a matter more complicated than grammar.

  17. I guess I am not the “typical person who uses the Internet on any topic,” since I don’t consider 49 young. Certainly I am not quite elderly yet, but also couldn’t be called “young.” And I don’t abbreviate from my phone, either. Although I am certainly aware of the abbreviations available and can interpret the slang, it sets my teeth on edge and I would never use it; so much so that when my friend received an email using poor grammar that was apparently from me she texted me to say that she thought I’d been hacked, since she couldn’t imagine me sending such a thing. In today’s world of full QWERTY keyboards on phones there is no excuse. Back in the dinosaur days when we had to use T9 predictive texting it might have been reasonable.

  18. It takes me quite a bit longer to use abbreviations such as “u” in SMS because I don’t use phones much and abbreviations aren’t natural to me. The only time I use them is when I scroll back through an SMS editing it so that I can keep under the word limit and send a cheaper text. :P

  19. Dennis,
    For decades, government authorities have been putting forth evidence that a good education is the best way to combat teen pregnancies, STD’s, drug abuse, gang violence, unhealthy living and so forth.
    Yet, it seems like you are challenging that hypothesis. You are correct that there are educated folks that take grammatical shortcuts for efficiency’s sake. I would venture to say that this fact is more of a margin of error in the data and does not debunk it. I see far more people use those “abbreviations” out of ignorance. I believe Google is showing that pattern.
    Google is a global and far reaching poll taker without the prejudices of human designed questions. It’s algorithms detect patterns of behavior and in this case the pattern seems to support an idea that has been fortified by study after study.

    • I intended to make a claim about the difference between grammar and usage. The difference between “you” and “u” has nothing to do with grammar, so an image that uses the term “grammar” in this manner is not a solid starting point for a discussion of the relationship between Google searches and education / health / morality / ethics. Having said that, of course I would prefer to read the “how can an individual” searches in my kids’ web browser history.

      • gram·mar

        [ grámmər ]
        1.rules for language: the system of rules by which words are formed and put together to make sentences
        Grammar is not only putting words together, but the forming of them, as well. From my perspective this is very a starting point for a valid discussion.

        • Technically, spelling is not an element of grammar, it is an element of orthography. Grammar applies to the spoken language, for which there is no spelling.

          You are misinterpreting the definition you posted. When they say “form words” they do not mean to create them out of letters.

        • To be clear – grammar applies to all natural languages, including the spoken form, as well as sign language, for which there is no spelling. It also applies to the written language, but only the same structural rules that apply to the spoken form. Orthography is the set of rules for the written form of a language, including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

        • Technically, you are correct. But I still stand by my assertion. Grammar has become an informal and generalized term for language in its entirety. (e.g. “grammar school”) and is an acceptable description of the above subject.

        • Well, sure, some people use the word grammar in an informal (yet incorrect) way to include all of the rules of a language in all of it’s forms. In the same vein, some people use ‘u’ as an informal (yet incorrect) abbreviation of the word ‘you’ in informal writing. Informal writing is not expected to follow all grammatical and orthographic rules of a language. Using an informal term as a basis to argue over the technical correctness of an informal abbreviation of a word seems a little silly.

          In the end, while it can be annoying and a sign of laziness, it is really irrelevant to a person’s education or their grasp of grammar or spelling. Your assertion that a high percentage of those that use the word ‘u’ do so out of ignorance rather than as an intentional informal abbreviation seems wildly off base. This is one of the very first words that people learn how to spell. If they can’t spell that, then they wouldn’t be able to spell any of the words before or after ‘u’, either. They certainly wouldn’t be able to read any of the results of their Google searches.

      • It is still about grammar. “U” or even “you” is a first person subject. Not only is it grammatically incorrect in most media for one to use the first person, it also changes the meaning. Strictly speaking the searcher using the first person would be asking Google how it does something. If (s)he wishes to know how a person does this, (s)he would need to be asking in the third person (“an individual”, “one”, “a person”, etc.). Your argument would work if the comparison were between “u” and “you”, but not in this circumstance because even if we all accept “u” as an appropriate abbreviation, the grammar is still incorrect.

        • First person is “I” or “we.” Second person is “you” (in the singular or plural). The generic “you” is, in spoken English and in informal written English, a commonly acceptable synonym for “one” or “an individual.”

        • The term first person was an error on my part. Still, the question should have been phrased in the third person as opposed to second even if the intent were to ask about an unspecified person. It is commonly *used* as a synonym, but still not grammatically correct unless speaking directly to a person.

        • It is not only commonly used, it is technically valid. According to every dictionary I have ever seen, including the most technical version of the Oxford English Dictionary, using ‘you’ as an indefinite pronoun meaning ‘one’ or ‘any person’ is absolutely valid.

    • A couple other things to consider:

      1) Google does some degree of language parsing. i.e. when you do an actual search for “how can u get herpes” (without the quotes) it results in exact matches with the phrases “how can you get herpes” and “how do you get herpes”. How much this carries over to the search prediction patterns, I’m not sure. “How can u” results in the exact same search predictions as “how can you” when I do it, though somebody else said they got different results. However, “how do u” and “how do you” do not result in the same predictions for me.

      2) And, of course, the good folks at Google are certainly not above doing this intentionally as a gag.

  20. My experience is that the same people that use ‘u’ on a phone are almost all people that will use ‘u’ on a computer with a full keyboard, too, when interacting socially. There may have been a time when there was a significant time difference between typing ‘u’ and typing ‘you’, when people were texting on phones with only number pads where you have to click the number 9 3 times to get a ‘y’. And indeed there are still some of those people out there. But there aren’t very many people doing Google searches on those phones.

    Obviously most of these people know that ‘u’ is not actually a word, but there is something to be said for the general attitude of somebody that can’t spare the time to type out a 3 letter word in their daily interactions with other people.

    This is not to say that there is a correlation between grammar and those search results. I think your last point about using ‘an individual’ to distinguish from society or other groups is probably more relevant.

    • True, most heavy texters today are probably using full keyboards, but the conventions that were established back in the day are still part of the shared culture. As a writing teacher, I can require my studetns to write more formally than they would for pretty much anybody else on the planet. I don’t know whether people doing Google searches think of themselves as interacting with other people, but you make a god point — the people using old-style phone keypads are not doing many Google searches. Autocorrect and autocomplete will probably have a much bigger impact on the writing of today’s tweens than the phone keyboard had on tweens of the pervious decade.

  21. Good points, but try “how can you,” and there is a difference. #1 is, in fact, “How can you get HIV.” However, that’s followed by:

    “how can you conserve water”
    “how can you create an email link”
    “how can you tell an acid from a base”

    • This meme has been around for some time. It is possible Google has adjusted its ratings, though my point is that the phrasing of the questions in the image exaggerate whatever real difference there might be in the data. Your phrasing shows mixed results, which would not make as amusing and popular a meme, so fewer people are likely to encounter it.

  22. “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. ”

    I knew the definition of formal language when I was in fifth grade, as do most children who cuss with their friends but not around their parents

    • A fifth-grader who knows when not to swear certainly has learned a social skill, but by “formal language” I mean specialized professional or technical language, which differs from what most people of any age use with their families (or type into their smartphones).

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