Zoe Bambery, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, might send more than 100 instant messages -- IMs -- during a typical evening. So during the SAT exam, the 18-year-old found herself inadvertently lapsing into IM-speak, using "b/c" instead of "because" as she scrambled to finish her essay.
She caught herself and now is careful to proofread before hitting print. But she is hardly the only student to find IM phrases creeping into schoolwork.
"They are using it absolutely everywhere," said Sara Goodman, an English teacher at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County who has worn out many purple and red markers circling the offending phrases in papers and tests.
Wendy Borelli, a seasoned English teacher at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, finds photo captions for the school yearbook sprinkled with shorthand such as "B4" and "nite." A student who left on a brief errand to the office announced he would "BRB."
In 2004, 16 million teenagers used instant messages to communicate, up from 13 million in 2000, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Students say IM language has become so ubiquitous they often do not realize they have lapsed into it.
"It's just natural. I had to learn not to do it" in papers, ChiChi Aniebonam, 17, said about her proficiency in IM. "I'm in AP literature, where you just can't put it into your writing, but when I'm writing something informal, now and again I use it."
Text messaging and instant messaging allow instant communication via phone or computer. But because the number of characters that can be used to convey a message can be limited, it has given rise to a whole new language. A phrase like "I know what you mean" is reduced to "IKWUM" in text-speak; "OTFL" translates to "on the floor laughing."
"The biggest problem for me is I don't IM, so I don't know what they're saying," said Allison Finn, who teaches AP English at Blake High School in Silver Spring. "They'll say things like 'TTYL,' [talk to you later] and I don't know what they're talking about."
It's not just teenagers. Some college professors say the lingo is popping up at their level as well.
Jeff Stanton, an associate professor in the school of information sciences at Syracuse University, said sometimes he is taken aback at how informal students have become in the way they communicate.
Stanton shared one of his favorite pieces of correspondence: "hi prof how are u culd u tell me my xm grade - tim."
‘A goofy message’
"It bothers me at one level, but I try not to let it get under my skin," he said. "But I am concerned [students] won't be successful if they don't know how to communicate on a formal basis. The first time they send a goofy message to the boss, they're going to be out."
Bridget Tomich, an English teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, said she has begun to pick up some of the shorthand and can now tell her LOLs (laugh out loud) from her TTYLs. She said her students get a kick out of being able to teach her for a change.
Still, some academics fret that the shorthand will hurt students' ability to write and communicate.
"The drawback of text messaging is that most services limit the messages to 30 words, and the ingenious young writers using that service have created symbols and abbreviations that lead to a very cryptic method of communication that does not lend itself to being transferred to academic writing," said John Briggs, a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, who heads the university's entry-level writing program for students.
But others see "teachable moments" in the new lingo. In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English, in a partnership with the International Reading Association, includes an outline on how to use IM and other forms of electronic communication on a Web site of lessons it maintains for educators across the country.
"In some ways, [IM] is an English teacher's dream because it's using writing for a real purpose, towards a real audience, and that's something we always struggle with in a classroom," said Leila Christenbury, the council's past president and a professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A few years ago, after several weeks of grading papers filled with IM-speak and other jargon, Goodman took matters into her own hands.
When the students showed up for class the following day, she asked them to read a paragraph she had written using many of the same phrases they used in their papers.
"chaucer's the canterbury tales r a scathing attack on the catholic church of the late 1300s . . . he uses the descriptions of many pilgrims (including several very sketchy religious dawgs) 2 deliver a veiled message about the mad corruption he like saw in the church the greed that some of his characters have 4 money, represents like the use of church scratch 2 build some pretty tight cathedrals."
She said they laughed but understood her point.
Edward Hardin, who works in test development for the College Board, which administers the SAT and AP exams, said that although some students slip an occasional IM-ism into an essay, the mistake he most often sees these days is students who confuse the word ludicrous -- causing laughter because of absurdity -- with Ludacris, the rapper.
"The guy has redefined the spelling of that word," Hardin said with a chuckle.