By Dennis Baron
Last Spring the New York Times reported that more and more grammar vigilantes are showing up on Twitter to police the typos and grammar mistakes that they find on users’ tweets. According to the Times, the tweet police “see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette,” and some of them go so far as to write algorithms that seek out tweets gone wrong (John Metcalfe, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” April 28, 2010).
Twitter users post “tweets,” short messages no longer than 140 characters (spaces included). That length restriction can lead to beautifully-crafted, allusive, high-compression tweets where every word counts, a sort of digital haiku. But most tweets are not art. Instead, most users use Twitter to tell friends what they’re up to, send notes, and make offhand comments, so they squeeze as much text as possible into that limited space by resorting to abbreviations, acronyms, symbols, and numbers for letters, the kind of shorthand also found, and often criticized, in texting on a mobile phone.
But what the tweet police are looking for are more traditional usage gaffes, like problems with subject-verb agreement, misspellings, or incorrect use of apostrophes. And they don’t like mistakes in word choice, as when Sarah Palin tweeted refudiate, not repudiate, in her objection to the Islamic Cultural Center being built near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
Palin is one of the celebrities on Twitter whose posts get a lot of scrutiny from the grammar watchers. But while refudiate was perceived to be an error, it’s not exactly a new word. According to Ammon Shea, it first appeared in 1891, and Ben Zimmer finds it surfacing again in 1925.
The immediate clamor that followed Palin’s use of refudiate in her July 18, 2010, tweet led Palin or someone on her staff to replace the original tweet with the edited version below. However, switching refudiate to refute didn’t placate the language purists, who insisted that she should have said repudiate.
In a tweet later that same day (below), Palin decided to recast her mistake as an experiment in creativity, arguing that word coinage is common in English and suggesting that her use of refudiate was somehow Shakespearean.
As if to prove her point, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary concluded that in coming up with refudiate Palin may have chosen just the right word for her tweet: “neither ‘refute’ nor ‘repudiate’ seems consistently precise, and. . . ‘refudiate’ more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of ‘reject.'” Maybe what Palin was really calling on Muslims to do was renounce the mosque, but in any case, while the Oxford lexicographers just named refudiate their word of the year for 2010, and while they turned up occasional examples of the word going back over a century, they did not find refudiate Shakespearean enough to actually add it to the dictionary.
Others confine themselves to specific pet peeves. @literallywrong tracks figurative uses of literally.
Although its name doesn’t say so, the tautological @itsversusits concerns itself not with a contentious divorce between the Itses (the name was shortened at Ellis Island), but with maintaining the distinction between possessive its and the contraction, it’s.
And the ambiguously-named @apostropheabuse doesn’t abuse apostrophes, it makes fun of tweets which abuse them.
In addition, individual tweeters often criticize one another’s grammar, sometimes bluntly, and sometimes making errors as they go. That’s an example of Baron’s First Law of English Usage: Anyone who complains about a mistake is also likely to make a mistake, sometimes the very mistake they object to. (As Juvenal liked to ask, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Not sure what that means? You can find out on Twitter.)
And it’s also common for tweeters to apologize for their own ignorance or their careless keyboarding.
Twitter is a wildly popular internet service. It went online in 2006, and as of September, 2010, there were 175 million registered users on the site. (Disclaimer: I myself tweet under the name DrGrammar, and although I am a real grammar doctor, I don’t carry a tweet police badge.) The Library of Congress finds Twitter a significant new outlet for the vox populi, and it’s archiving the entire twittersphere on its web site. With all those tweeters, it should come as no surprise that, like other social networking sites that began as upstarts and have become more mainstream, what was once experimental and freewheeling has moved toward conventionality, a conventionality enforced both by self-appointed language monitors, as illustrated above, and by Twitter’s own spell-check, a utility that underlines misspellings and that can’t be turned off:
This move toward linguistic conventionality online is not surprising. In the early days of email, going back to the 1960s. writers on the cutting edge of the electronic frontier used mainframes with keyboards that didn’t permit capitalization, and line editors that didn’t permit easy correction, to send messages to one another across intranets, their language dressed just like they were, in t-shirts, jeans, and sandals. They could care less about linguistic correctness.
Then a combination of developments—like the coming of the railroads to the analog frontier—turned Silicon Gulch into Silicon Valley, and the electronic frontier became suburbia. Favorably-priced and easy-to-use personal computers, coupled with user-friendly software, tempted more people to abandon typing for word processing, and it wasn’t long before these newcomers discovered email programs that worked like word processors, complete with spelling and grammar checkers. A new breed of dudes and city-slickers came to cyberspace with their conservative textual conventions intact, prepared to read and write emails with the salutations and complimentary closes of snail mail, not to mention proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Similarly, when the ‘net was young—the “web” is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, which in digital terms is pretty ancient, though the internet itself is almost 41—some of the participants in newsgroups like alt.usage.english (newsgroups were a pre-Twitter way to talk online) began to push users to observe grammar and usage conventions, ridiculed online “grammatical errors,” and even flamed their perpetrators. Suddenly the electronic frontierspeople were doffing their buckskin and worrying about such niceties as how to spell email (e-mail, E-mail, email), whether email can be a verb; whether a plural form, emails, is permissible; whether on line should be one word or two; and whether Internet and Word Wide Web are capitalized (and if so, should web page be written Web page or maybe Web Page?).
Reinforcing this turn toward conventional language were college writing texts with chapters on “how to write for an online audience” and handbooks for newbies dispensing advice on “how to write effective emails,” “creating a web page you can be proud of,” and “blogging for dummies,” all aimed at an audience of newcomers who assume there’s a right way and a wrong way to put text onscreen, and they want to be sure to learn the right way.
That said, not everyone on Twitter appreciates being twitted by the grammar cops.
That’s an example of Baron’s Second Law of English usage:
Everybody wants to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected.
My own unscientific sampling of Twitter shows that there are more tweets from would-be correctors and from tweeters apologizing for their own mistakes than there are from libertarians who would deny the tweet police any authority. But that sampling also shows that most tweeters simply stay away from discussions of correctness and just post whatever they want. And that’s an example of Baron’s Third Law of English usage at work:
When the tweet police cite them for improper use of language, some people will acknowledge their error and some will insist on their day in court. But most people will probably misunderstand what they did wrong and how they’re supposed to fix it. They’ll smile politely, pay the $2, and in trying to correct things, they’ll actually make new mistakes that only help to keep the tweet police in business.
Follow @DrGrammar on Twitter or read my posts on the Web of Language; even though the picture shows me wearing the aviator glasses favored by the tweet police, don’t be fooled—it was taken thirty years ago.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language.