Last month, one of the most erudite of Americans, Librarian of Congress James Billington, fretted in a newspaper interview about the nation's information revolution. He said personal, back-and-forth electronic communication is fast degrading -- even destroying -- what he called the basic unit of human thought: the sentence.

He cited sloppy grammar and punctuation, careless spelling, and cutesy abbreviations that young people, especially, employ in online chatter, web-based journals called blogs, and quick text messages they send back and forth, often using only their thumbs, on handheld devices.

"Text messaging is destroying the written word," asserts Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and author of a new book on communication skills.

Noting this, and focusing on young people in particular, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which conducts national surveys on all sorts of Internet-related topics, surveyed 700 teenagers by phone, and talked with others at length in person, about their written communication.

What may surprise you is that most teens don't think of their techno-aided writing as real writing at all. They acknowledge that writing is a key skill for getting ahead in life, but that all this electronic give-and-take has no more lasting value than a telephone call.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed admit that the casual informality of their Internet chats has crept into their serious writing at school, with harmful effect on their grades.

In short, American teens admit to writing more, studying the craft of writing less, and thinking of what they're tapping out on their electronic gadgets as something completely different from writing. As for sentences, it's clear that in the teen world, that basic unit of human thought is little more than a relic of musty, fussy times gone by.

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