Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Tweet Police Are Watching!

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.

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.

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 is one of the celebrities on Twitter whose posts get a lot of scrutiny from the grammar watchers. The immediate clamor that followed her use of refudiate in a July 18, 2010, tweet led Palin or someone on her staff to replace the original tweet, above, with an 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.'" But while the Oxford lexicographers just named refudiate their word of the year for 2010, they did not find it Shakespearean enough to actually add refudiate to the dictionary.

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

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.)

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, 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 'net 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, illustrating 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; 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.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 17th 2010, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
I will try to point this out without making a mistake of my own. ;o)

When you said, "They could care less about linguistic correctness," didn't you mean they "couldn't" care less?

Nonetheless, I loved your article. I welcome the vigilantes, mistakes and all. It means we have people who care about language. Rules are there for a reason. If it weren't for rules, our living language would evolve into something unintelligible within our lifetime. Communication itself would break down in such a language. English would cease to be the global language of business and we would all have to learn another language (rules and all) if we hoped to understand and be understood. Those who couldn't care less are, I suspect, either younger people or narrow-minded people who are too immature to understand the benefits they themselves receive from the existence of all those rules.
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
no, i meant what i said. the irony was blunted since a graphic of a tweet objecting to "i could care less" got left on the cutting room floor.
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 5:34 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
I'm followin...
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 6:18 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
As one compelled to write another comment correcting myself when I hit the comment link and then realize (gasp) my first comment was ungrammatical, misspelled, or blemished by a typo, I am a guard who is guarding myself. Is that legal in the state of North Carolina?
Thursday November 18th 2010, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Some boomerangs can be constructive and are good !
Thursday November 18th 2010, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
I loved your article. The screen shot of GrammarCop replying to a tweet by BiebersTopFan is sure to keep me smiling all day. Thank you!

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"The Web" at 20
- 1 Comment
How the metaphor of "the Web" has flourished over the past twenty years.
A measured look at the controversy over Palin's use of "refudiate."
The American Dialect Society's selections for the Words of 2009 and 2000-09.