Wilbers: Reading and writing in the era of handheld devices

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2014 - 2:00 PM

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My first text message from my 13-month-old granddaughter!

“What does it mean?” my wife asks.

Obviously, it means our granddaughter is a genius.

But it also means her relationship with language will differ fundamentally from that of anyone who grew up before the era of handheld devices.

It’s not that she isn’t encountering written language in books. She loves to “read” (that is, to turn the pages and look at the pictures and printed words as books are being read to her). On a typical day she’ll “read” several books before noon — sometimes, the same two or three books, four or five times each.

What distinguishes her experience from that of anyone who grew up in the pre-handheld device (or PHD) era is the captivating allure of something that plays music, shows videos, diverts the attention of her adoring parents away from her, and brings grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to her as miniature images that look and sound just like the real thing.

So what effect will these devices have on future generations of readers and writers? What effect are they having now?

The latter question is more easily answered.

As book lover David Ulin recounts in “The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time,” even he falls prey to the “buzz” of the Internet as it pulls him away from reading “The Great Gatsby” with his 15-year-old son, Noah.

For writers, handheld devices are making certain trends even more pronounced. Twelve years ago I identified six changes in our on-the-job writing:

1. Vocabulary is becoming more basic — rather than finish something, we’re more likely to get it done, and rather than return something, we’re more likely to give it back.

2. Sentences and paragraphs are becoming shorter.

3. Sentence structures are becoming simpler and less varied, with compound structures (“She was worried about declining profits, and so she decided to postpone buying new computers”) more prevalent than complex structures (“Because she was worried about declining profits, she decided to postpone buying new computers”).

4. Commas are being used less frequently, as in “My company like yours is watching its spending,” rather than “My company, like yours, is watching its spending.”

5. Typographical errors involving transposed letters (as in hte for the) are becoming less frequent.

6. Good writing is more likely to be associated with quickness and agility than with deliberate, nuanced expression.

So how will handheld devices affect future readers and writers?

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