Columns > Published on February 28th, 2013

Twitter: Destructor Of Grammar Or Awesome Word Factory?

Twitter is the Wild West of language—but not everybody wants to be a gunfighter. Let’s be honest, you can tell with one glance that English actor Ralph Fiennes and linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky are not cut out to be cowboys. That’s probably why they show such disdain for the bluebird-mascotted microblogging service. Both men hold that Twitter is eroding the English language. Fiennes said that, because of Twitter, “Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.” Chomsky said Twitter is “extremely rapid, very shallow” and “draws people away from real, serious communication.”

Fiennes and Chomsky are far from alone. Countless academics, grammar sticklers, parents, online comic artists, and Luddites have also shown concern about Twitter’s Wild West approach to language. According to The Telegraph, 58 percent of teachers think students’ atrocious spelling skills can be attributed to the time they spend texting and using Twitter and other social media. But are these concerns justified?

 

2B OR NT 2B. THATS THE ?, TWEEPS.

Are we headed for a world of mislaid vowels, phonetic spelling, and bizarre acronyms? Is Twitter really destroying the English language as we know it? Maybe… but probably not.

It’s tough to say with certainty how the omnipresent 140-character blurbs are affecting language because language is a constantly evolving, living thing. It’s not always easy to identify the source of changes. If general literacy goes downhill, it’s hard to know whether to blame Twitter, the educational system, the popularity of Honey Boo Boo, LOL cats, or a combination thereof. It’s like waking from a nap in a monkey enclosure and trying to figure out which of the little assholes threw poo at you while you were sleeping. They all look pretty guilty.

In ur colleges, studyin ur tweetz.

Twitter’s impact on language is also hard to measure because although the startup launched in 2006, there are probably not as many linguistic studies on the topic as you might think.

We’ve got to remember the early days: That first year there were like seven guys on it. The second year, it was a bunch of tech nerds having an echo chamber party (confession: I was on in 2007. My first tweet simply said, “Bowing to peer pressure.”). In 2008, the masses began to arrive, but it didn’t occur to linguists that it was something worth studying or that it had the potential to have an impact on language.

In 2009, Oprah joined, then her minions, then your grandma, then all bets were off. Television shows suddenly displayed hashtags at the bottom of the screen. Product managers enthusiastically encouraged you to follow your favorite brand of mashed potatoes or hand sanitizer. Actors abandoned their cultured characters and revealed their real-life personas to be incapable of typing 140 characters without incorporating typos and other crimes against the English language. (Go ahead, ask John Cusack about his movie “Hot Tub Tome Machine,” which I can only guess has to do with robot authors soaking in whirlpools.) It wasn’t until that 2009 tipping point that it seemed at all reasonable to spend time studying tweets as a medium. As always, we can all blame Oprah.

It’s not the size that matters; it's how you use it.

One of the main allegations against Twitter is that its character limitation is causing people to dumb down their vocabularies by using shorter words. Author and language geek J.P. Davidson railed against shortened language and claimed that the twits on the Twitter can't even understand many of the words used by Shakespeare or PG Wodehouse anymore.

Not one to take a rant at face value, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author author of the blog Language Log, put Davidson's theory to the test in an itty-bitty experiment. He compared the average word length in Hamlet and eight of Wodehouse's stories with the average word length in the 100 most recent tweets from Penn State's independent student newspaper and found that Kids These Days are, on average, tweeting 4.8-character words. Wodehouse was penning 4.05-character words. And The Bard—that slacker!—was cranking out 3.99-character words; he might as well be Dr. Seuss.

There are a few problems with this experiment—not the least of which is the assumption that tweets from University of Pennsylvania student journalists are similar in quality to the 340 million daily tweets from dudes who voluntarily get hit in the junk with a board so they can put it on YouTube or girls who superglue their fingers to their fake eyelashes. To wit, an @dailypenn tweet from today: "Penn Vet research uncovers protein that may help the healing process of human bones" versus a recent tweet from @Cher: "He little children wassupn". See also: "Bye ! Many".

So there's still no reliable evidence that Twitter is causing us to use shorter words when we're communicating outside the character-restricted format, but let's imagine for a moment that it did happen. If society moved toward more information-dense, concise communication, would that be such a bad thing? As Orwell—and every writing teacher and editor I've ever dealt with—says, "Never use a long word where a short one will do." Brevity can be beautiful, right? ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.")

Choose your words wisely.

Okay, so not all words over three letters are being immediately replaced with emoticons and emoji, but that doesn't mean Twitterese is the same as general English. For a start, Twitter users are more narcissistic than most folks are in person. After studying more than 1.5 million random tweets, Oxford University Press noted in 2009 that the word "I" was the second most common word on Twitter (it's only the tenth most common word in general use) and that Tweeters are more likely to use verbs in their gerund form—because how else would they let you know that they're watching "Dance Moms" and eating delicious horse meat after trying to create rainbows using a pot of boiling water and a flashlight. Oh, and for what it's worth, Twitter users also love the word "fuck." Speaking of "fuck"...

You talk to your grandma with that mouth?

Aside from the obvious narcissism at play, odds are most differences between general usage English and the language of tweets can be explained by something linguists refer to as register. Register simply refers to the changes we make in our language based on who we are talking to. Every day, as you talk to your boss, your spouse, your best friend, your cat, your grandma, the Dalai Lama, you switch registers without realizing it, using different levels of formality and even a slightly different lexicon. You're not going to tell your grandma to "crank this Presets song cuz it's mad good." Likewise, the register you use for public tweets is almost certainly different than the register you use with your closest friends. I know mine is; I'd have exactly two followers if that weren't the case.

Being able to switch seamlessly between registers and settings demonstrates a level of linguistic mastery, particularly among kids. The University of Melbourne's John Frow told PBS: "English has literary languages of different kinds, it’s got technical languages, it’s got professional jargon, it’s got sub-cultural languages, it’s got dialects, the kind of language that’s used in chatrooms. Kids today are exposed to a much bigger range of languages than we were in the pre-digital era." That's the bright side.

Mistakes multiplied

The darker side is that kids are not only exposed to more language than ever before, they're also exposed to more unedited, error-filled text than ever before. Back in my day (she says in a creaky voice), the text we saw had been professionally published by professional authors after being edited by a professional editor. None of this hashtag bullshit. (Get off my lawn.) Thanks to Twitter and the internet, language learners—both kids and those learning a second language—are bombarded with grammatical atrocities that would send my middle school English teacher into a rage that would end in chalk shards and hives.

To me, all the concerns about shortening words and being unable to deal with complex sentence structure pale in comparison to this issue. After all, you can't shorten words or decrease the complexity of your sentence structure unless you already have a base level of literacy. The language skills of students, on the other hand, stand to take a pretty big hit if tweets like, "your stupid" or "theirs a racoon in my pants, lol" serve as their models for English.

There are a group of grammar heroes who have set up Twitter accounts such as @CapsCop, @YourOrYoure, @YourInAmerica, and @GrammarCop so that they (or the bots they programmed) can tweet back at the authors of grammatically flawed tweets and stop the viral spread of stupidity. I, for one, salute them for that. 

Ermahgerd!

"YOLO so I #occupied a bakery for noms but failed the cinnamon challenge. #firstworldproblems." This mess of meme-diculous nonsense is what a lot of people fear when we talk about Twitter helping to spread new words or phrases, and those fears are somewhat justified. Twitter, or more accurately the internet as a whole, is pushing the English language to evolve faster than ever. Just like a lizard who evolved too quickly and ended up with a parrot leg sticking out of his forehead, language that evolves too rapidly can turn into a real trainwreck. Fortunately, "hashtags," "Arab spring," and other words that have the potential to be useful in the long-term will stick with us long after "derp" and "Tebowing" have been relegated to the dusty corners of our minds where jelly shoes and "The Macarena" dwell.

If new terms spread quickly via social media, what about regional slang? Computational linguists at Carnegie Mellon University made fancy dialect maps of the United States based on tweets. Southerners used "y'all," Pittsburgh used "yinz," Northern California was "hella" tired. They claimed they could isolate a person's location within 300 miles based on the language used in their tweets. At first—given our increasingly globalized world and the prevalence of fast-spreading new terms on the internet—this segmentation seems counterintuitive, but these regional-specific dialects are actually part of our identities, so most people are wary to give up their own regional identity to adopt someone else's. Still, it seems inevitable that language will become more universal as we continue to communicate online with people from all over the planet.


I'm very interested to know what you guys think. What impact is Twitter having on our language? Will it give us a neverending stream of useful new terms and push us to express more in fewer words? Or will it slaughter grammatical standards?

[Header photo credit: Berkozturk on DeviantART]

About the author

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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