Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Abbreviation Quiz

This "pop quiz" is an idea that you could use for an introductory lecture about some basic beliefs held by linguists or for introducing a unit on historical linguistics and language change. I came up with this activity to deal with the common belief in the general public (and held by many beginning students) that language should not ever change. In particular, we talked about opinions about the influence of text-messaging on written language and about a decision in New Zealand to allow text-speak on written exams. Some students wrote in their journals that they feared that young people growing up with too much exposure to text-speak would only know abbreviations and not be able to recognise the full forms that the abbreviations stood for, and that this would be detrimental to the continuance of written English as we know it. To raise this matter for class discussion, I made the following quiz and told my students jokingly that we were having a "pop quiz" that wouldn't be graded, but that I wanted them to do the best they could. Then I put the quiz on the overhead and gave them a few minutes to complete it.

POP QUIZ!

Without consulting any other source or individual, identify the full forms of as many of the following common abbreviations as possible.

Group 1Group 2Group 3
1.A.D.AC/DCBFF
2.A.M.AM/FMBRB
3.ca.CBSBTW
4.cf.CD-ROMGTG
5.e.g.CODIMHO
6.et al.HIVLOL
7.ibid.ISBNMYOB
8.i.e.UPCROTFL
9.op. cit.URLTTYL
10.viz.ZIPWTF


After giving the students a few minutes to record their responses, I put another overhead up with the answers.

ANSWERS

Group 1Group 2Group 3
1.Anno DominiAlternating Current/Direct CurrentBest Friends Forever
2.Ante MeridiemAmplitude Modulation/Frequency ModulationBe Right Back
3.circaColumbia Broadcasting SystemBy The Way
4.conferCompact Disc - Read-Only MemoryGot To Go
5.exempli gratiaCash On DeliveryIn My Humble Opinion
6.et aliiHuman Immunodeficiency VirusLaughing Out Loud
7.ibidemInternational Standard Book NumberMind Your Own Business
8.id estUniversal Product CodeRolling On The Floor Laughing
9.opere citatoUniform Resource LocatorTalk To You Later
10.videlicetZone Improvement PlanWhat The F(---)?


Afterwards, we talk about how many answers people got right in each column, what the source language was for each column (Latin, English, English Text-speak), and whether that shows any patterns about how we use abbreviations to express full linguistic ideas. Usually students get very few answers right in Group 1, get at least half right in Group 2 (but not all), and get most or all right in Group 3. I try to make the point that for the abbreviations in Group 2, we are mostly aware of what the concepts referred to are and can make use of those things on a regular basis without knowing what the abbreviations stand for, and I ask the students to reconsider, in light of this, whether it still bothers them that people might use abbreviations without knowing the full forms.

Answers always continue to vary for this question, and you can get some really good discussion out of it. I don't do the activity to force the descriptivist "language changes, so get used to the idea" stance on students, but rather to expose them to how easy it can be to form an opinion about other speakers' language use that ignores the reality of your own speech. I believe this activity opens up an interesting way to talk about this issue that forces the student to consider his or her own language use critically and not just to view English in terms of blanket generalisations about what older or younger people do. Naturally, many students will still hold strong prescriptivist tendencies, and this is a good launching point to begin to discuss why people hold prescriptivist opinions and what those opinions accomplish socially, as well as to help students understand that asking them to take a descriptivist approach in the course does not mean that they have to abandon prescriptivist attitudes entirely, just that they need to see why taking only a prescriptivist approach does not adequately describe the full range of language use.

Some students get more upset by this activity than others because they feel that, particularly with regards to the words in Group 1, not knowing the full forms makes them seem stupid, or at least less well educated. I never ask students to reveal their answers to this activity individually, and I try to assure them throughout that this is not the intent of the activity, and that I myself did not know the answers to most of the Group 1 words or about half of the Group 2 words without looking them up. However, some of my students were convinced that older professors probably would know all of the Group 1 answers. To prepare yourself to conduct this activity in class, you might consider giving the test to some of the most experienced faculty in your department (or better yet, in a range of departments if you can manage it) before your lecture to arm yourself with evidence that increased education does not necessarily mean one is fluent in Latin. In any event, be prepared for the eventuality that this activity will make some of your students uncomfortable and assure them repeatedly that you are not using it to make them feel bad, but to show them in a way they can relate to that language use is an ever-changing phenomenon.

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