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  • " :) when you say that, pardner" -- the tweet police are watching

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    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, nytimes.com).

    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.

    Sarah Palin tweet,

    A Sarah Palin tweet showing the kinds of linguistic compression often associated with the genre.

    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 tweets refudiate

    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.

    example of refudiation from 1891

    Above: the earliest example found so far of refudiation, used in an article in the Fort Worth Gazette, June 14, 1891, where it seems to mean something like ‘refutation’; below, refudiated in a headline in the Atlanta Constitution, June 21, 1925. Variations of refudiate appear from time to time, but they all seem to be examples of serial nonce words, coined by someone through error or on purpose, then forgotten until they’re coined afresh by someone else.

    refudiated in a 1925 headline

    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.

    Palin switches refudiate to refute

    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. 

    Palin tweets,

    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.

    Some tweeters, like @grammar cop and @3grammarcops, conduct warrantless online searches to correct errors wherever they occur.

    3 grammar cops,

    GrammarCop corrects

    Others confine themselves to specific pet peeves. @literallywrong tracks figurative uses of literally.

    literally wrong, chronicling the world's obsession with misusing, abusing, and misunderstanding the words iteral and 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.

    Announce to the world the major indiscretions of It's vs. Its. Watch the English world mangle something taught in the second day of 2nd grade!

    And the ambiguously-named @apostropheabuse doesn’t abuse apostrophes, it makes fun of tweets which abuse them.

    Apostrophe abuse: Fox News doesn't identify error in

    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.)

    Do you have any idea how many grammar mistakes you publish on your site?

    ALSO your grammar sucks. I have no clue what you are saying. You jump from topic to topic. Its not even english

    your teachers told you grammar and spelling is important, but you didn't listen. now, you tweet and blog and FIAL! (sic)

    Watch your spelling and grammar. Nobody likes to see words that are spelled incorrectly, or that are hard to understand.

    LADIES: Its not

    if you're too damn lazy to use correct grammar and spelling get the fuck off here and go back to facebook

    The opinion of @chelikay notwithstanding, language correctors can be active on Facebook as well.

    And it’s also common for tweeters to apologize for their own ignorance or their careless keyboarding.

    I'll be tweeting the game through my Droid so apologies in advance for the inevitable grammar mistakes.

    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: 

    I could care less or I couldnt.  lesse and couldnt are underlined

    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.

    fuck off you arrogant grammar nazi! congrats u just won a PFU/Block

    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.

    DrGrammar is a real grammar doctor

    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.

jlawler@umich.edu Nov 14, 2010 9:44 am
Very nice. And you never even used any form of the word "peeve". Though I was surprised to find you crediting a.u.e with so much influence. There are a lot of sharp cookies on a.u.e, but most of what I've seen there since 1995 or so is the usual clueless anxiety, mixed with the usual chaotic dogmatism.

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