I had joked with some friends when I first embarked on the brave new world of being a TA that surely some student would send me an email asking a question written like a text message. It was intended as a joke. An exaggeration. A situation that surely would not happen. And then I got an email last quarter asking about a question on the homework. “What do u mean…” began the student’s email. I had assumed it was a little joke to poke fun at my oldster sensibilities, so I ignored the curious spelling. Then a few days later I received another email from the same student. Same thing; you was once again replaced by u.
At first I was going to make this post just a diatribe in which I ranted at length about how academic emails call for a certain formality, how you look foolish when you don’t you an appropriate level of formality, how you need to turn off text-speak when you’re not composing a text message, and how text messaging is a bane to our preciously and precociously absurd spelling system (yes, it’s hard to learn, but it looks so cool sometimes). In short, I was going to be old and tell all the youngsters out there about how dumb they look when they don’t obey the little formalisms that all us oldsters consider so terribly important.
But then I thought better of it. After all, it’s already been said many other times, and to judge from my cousin’s insistent use of such contractions, these complaints don’t seem to sink in. And perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions by assuming that u is a result of laziness. There are a wide range of reasons why one might desire to type out you but find oneself only able to type u. For instance, perhaps the student’s parents had been killed by a runaway y-o combination and she can’t bring herself to type such a combination again. It could be that her keyboard lacks those keys. Or perhaps she is a militant simplified-spelling activist, fresh off of a hunger strike at Merriam-Webster HQ, and adamant in her belief that the silent y-o should be omitted.
And the more I think about it, really, what’s it matter anyway? Is English’s archaic spelling essential in some way to the language? Though I do love its idiosyncrasies, it would probably be better if English had spelling that better reflected its pronunciation. And using u instead of you is shifting us closer to that.
All that having been said, my current opinion is that academic emails do call for a certain level of formality, even to an egalitarian descriptivist like me. Please, please, readers: don’t use text-speak when you email your TAs and professors. Add in those extra couple letters. We’re trying to teach you to at least look intelligent. (This is something I’ve mastered; I assume that being intelligent will follow.) Try not to remind us how often we fail.