Twitter is a great place for a conversation

In a year of discovery on Twitter, I have acquainted myself with an amazing group of editors, linguists, lexicographers and other word lovers. I don’t consider myself an expert on language, just a practitioner. I haven’t diagrammed a sentence in 30 years. And I am much better at cleaning up other people’s copy than I am at avoiding my own mistakes.

A longtime debate among some word aficionados is whether language rules should be enforced or whether we should let language evolve. It seems a silly debate. Of course, both are true. Language would not exist without conventions, but those conventions evolve to fit changing times. Sometimes this evolution is based on fashion; sometimes it is based on utility.

As a newspaper copy editor, my job was to enforce rules and put up at least an honorable defense to change. Language can be wild and confusing, and trendiness can get in the way of the basic goal of language: clarity. Newspapers can be playful with the language, just not loose.

So a newspaper copy editor probably falls somewhere right of center. Some would say solidly to the right as a member of the prescriptivist’s caucus.

Twitter is not newspapers. It may be written, but sentence structure more closely resembles spoken language than written. Twitter conversations can veer wildly to left.

John Metcalfe took a look at what could be called the wingnuts of Twitter in a story in today’s New York Times. On one side, those who seem to type with their elbows on their Blackberrys and iPhones; on the other side, what the story calls “self-appointed Twitter scolds” who endeavor to enforce the rules of “proper English.”

But that story looks at the extremes, and the middle path almost always turns out to be the superior one. I’m not familiar with any of the people in Metcalfe’s story. The people I know through Twitter are mostly careful with the language, but don’t revel in the imperfections of others. They might note a particularly enjoyable public typo or commiserate over an example of careless writing, but they don’t seek to embarrass or scold.

I was asked about the issue several weeks ago by Metcalfe, and I told him I had never heard of the practice and that I couldn’t fathom whey someone would bother. I explained that I’m loath to publicly make note of anyone’s errors, and I don’t correct Twitter talk. If a friend makes a gaff that could be embarrassing, I am careful to pass a note along privately or through a Twitter account that has only a few followers.

It turns out I didn’t really say anything then that would add to Metcalfe’s story. I gave a better answer, I think, when I was asked about my approach to language policing on Twitter moments ago.

“It’s better to be helpful than to be chiding, to support rather than attack,” I said.

This is not to say that I condone those who don’t care enough about their readers to put together a coherent 140-character statement. But I have a simple technique for dealing with it. I don’t follow them.