To Leet or Not to Leet: A Guest Post by Ricki Schultz

Monday, March 8, 2010

Being an aspiring author as well as a writer of contemporary young adult lit, I have devoured my share of Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, E. Lockhart, John Green, Wendy Toliver, and Lauren Myracle novels (to name a few).

However, since thrusting myself into the YA genre, I cannot ignore a trend that chills the former English teacher in me to her very core: leet speak and its many derivatives.


Leet speak (also, l33t speak) is a form of Internet and text message shorthand, where one combines numbers, letters, and sometimes symbols in order to form certain words. Leet refers to the word elite, as this Internet language is a learned behavior, primarily used among tweens and teens—many of which who mock adults using it for trying to engage in something outside their realm of understanding. (Hence, only the elite—ahem—“3l33t” can use it.)

Intertwined with this form of communication is using acronyms, where the first letter of each word in a group of words forms a pronounceable abbreviation (i.e., Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome becomes AIDS); initialisms, where each letter is pronounced separately (i.e., The National Broadcasting Company becomes NBC); or a host of combinations and mutations of the two (i.e., ROFL means “rolling on the floor laughing,” and LOL means “lots of laughs” or “laugh out loud”).


Even though I’m not in love with the idea of intentionally mucking around with grammar and spelling, leet speak has its place in the world.

With text messaging being a staple of most cell phone plans these days as well as billions of folks belonging to social networking sites where they limit the amount of characters one can use to communicate, even English language elitists recognize that this trend is quickly becoming its own language—and it’s also becoming increasingly accepted in society.

And all of this has me asking: Is this a good or bad thing?


The most recent novel to adorn my nightstand is the fabulous Lauren Myracle’s ttyl, which is the first book in her best-selling “IM”/“Internet Girls” series.

Now, I’ve met Myracle—I’ve interviewed her—I admire her. I even consider her to be a mentor of mine. I use her as an example not to single her out, but because her “IM” series (which includes ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r, and bff) is the first set of books written entirely in Instant Messages—a feat in its own right!—and that means it’s riddled with leet speak. It’s so specifically teen, which—aside from great storytelling and an impressive command of dialogue—is part of what makes the series so popular.

In the first few pages of ttyl, the publishers include real teens’ feedback, praising Myracle for hooking them. One reader says she doesn’t typically read, but this book speaks to her because Myracle is so in tune with the way she and her friends talk to one another.


A former English teacher, I have shed many a tear over students’ inattention to detail
when it comes to spelling and grammar—and, to some degree, I blamed what I called “Text Message Lingo.”

It amazed my students that I included Text Message Lingo in my rubrics as a major
no-no in all written work.

“Who would do that in an English paper?” they’d ask . . . and, inevitably, I’d get at least two assignments a year where someone would substitute a “2” for the word “two”—or, even more offensive, for “to” or “too.”

So, does embracing leet speak in contemporary YA help or hurt the cause?

One might use the argument that, in order to break all these grammar rules, you must
first know what they are—but I doubt half the people out there think once (let alone twice) about the spelling and grammar rules they’re breaking when they Tweet.


On the other hand, in the last school where I taught, the English department was always looking for ways to get teens interested in picking up books. In that regard, Myracle and fellow embracers of leet speak in YA novels really seem to be on to something.

As well, contemporary YA is one of the healthiest subgenres in the entire publishing industry—so, yeah, kids are reading.


All that said, I recognize that leet speak is true to the contemporary teen and, therefore, has a place in literature. I love Myracle’s books and the books of other YA authors who’ve used Text Message Lingo—and, confession: I’ve even used it in my own manuscript.

However, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

We live in a society where a great debate exists between the old and the new. Heck, the publishing world is a microcosm of this, with daily disputes in the news and the blogosphere over e-books and the state of the industry.

So, I leave you with a few questions:

  • Is it more important to get young people reading by hooking them with compelling characters and masterful storytelling—even at the expense of proper grammar? (Craft vs. Content?)
  • Does using leet speak and the like perpetuate poor writing skills?
  • If this new “language” does contribute to the downfall of grammar as we know it, is that necessarily a bad thing?

A freelance writer and editor, Ricki Schultz is a contributor to Writer’s Digest Books, with three articles forthcoming in 2010 (in the 2011 editions of Guide to Literary Agents, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Screenwriter’s & Playwright’s Market). She also interviews literary agents for the Guide to Literary Agents blog.

She has published poetry, has written for St. Ignatius Magazine and Northern Virginia Magazine, and has won awards for both her YA manuscripts. She belongs to Southeastern Writers Association, South Carolina Writers Workshop, Romance Writers of America, and Young Adult Romance Writers of America; and, in addition to being the coordinator of Shenandoah Writers and Shenandoah Writers Online, she will be teaching workshops at both the Southeastern Writers Association’s annual conference and the Romance Writers of America national conference in the summer of 2010.

Originally from Ohio, Schultz taught high school English and journalism for five years, and she holds a BA in English and an M.Ed. in secondary education, both from John Carroll University in Cleveland. She currently lives with her husband and beagle in McGaheysville, Virginia.

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