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.

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13 thoughts on “Twitter is a great place for a conversation

  1. John E. McIntyre wrote this about the New York Times article moments ago: “One of the charms of Twitter, to the extent that it does charm, is the freewheeling informality and colloquial inventiveness.”

    His blog, “You Don’t Say,” is conveniently reachable at the bottom of my alphabetically arranged list of recommended blogs at the right.

  2. Hi Mark,
    I enjoy reading your blog and I can identify very much with today’s post. When I started out on Twitter, I foolishly thought I might be able to help others improve their grammar; I began to gratuitously correct their errors by rewriting their tweets and sending them as replies. The responses I received were not too pleasant. e.g. “What are you a fuckin grammer Nazi? F–K U!!” My tweets also had a haughty tone of superiority and many criticized me for that as well.
    It took me a while before I learned your lesson: It’s better to be helpful and supportive. I now rarely correct other’s tweets unless I am asked, and most of the time I do it gently through a personal message.

  3. Those of us who care about language do have to be careful not to get smug about it. I encourage self-policing versus a “gotcha” approach.

    Even on Twitter, who wants to look stupid? Particularly Tweeters who are touting a product or service—if you look stupid, I’m going to ignore whatever it is you’re promoting. A simple typo; no problem. But a borderline illiterate Tweet just does you no good. Why alienate even a tiny percentage of your audience?

    Mark: In paragraph 8, line 2, “whey” should be “why.” Simple typo. No problem.

  4. Thanks for the comments and the typo alert, Bob. It’s fixed now, as is my earlier mistyping of “loathe” rather than “loath” (I know better, but it’s one that has tripped me up before) pointed out by copy editor and friend Colleen Barry.

  5. *checks to see if you follow me* Whew. I love certain words, and enjoy stringing them together. Most of the time the manage to make sense. But I’m definitely far from perfect, especially with 140 character constraints.

    I hate looking stupid on Twitter, and do it all the time ;)

  6. I came across You’reNotYour’s Twitter account a couple of months ago. Though I could understand the frustration caused by the you’re/your error, I was turned off by the way this person called people out. There’s a difference between mentioning it privately to someone to avoid embarrassing them, and putting it on display as if to say, “Look at this idiot.” Needless to say I didn’t follow them.

    I completely agree with you that there’s a whole middle path on Twitter full of people who appreciate language and are nothing but supportive, even when pointing out mistakes we all make. I loved following the #typo thread you started a week or so ago because it was such a great example of this. We know we all make mistakes, but we also care enough to correct them.

  7. Well said, Mark. I’ve been thinking that most word-people on Twitter treat others the way most people who play golf treat strangers on the golf course, at least in my experience: they are almost invariably polite, supportive.

    When someone plays golf badly (that happens a lot even to people who are trying hard), golfers rarely make fun. When they coach or “correct” somebody’s golf swing, they do so when invited, and they generally just ignore people who are boorish or maybe just ignorant of course etiquette (the golf course equivalent of those who tweet only in all caps or LOL-OMG-style text style, I guess).

    Life’s too short to play gotcha either on the course or on Twitter. That said, one problem is that subtle humor can be tough to convey in 140 characters. A couple of times I have tweeted a reply or sent an edited retweet, intending to just converse with someone about their post or alert them to a problem with a post, and later realized my response could be interpreted as scolding.

    Thanks again for the post on a topic that has obviously hit a nerve, and for good reason.

  8. @Madison….Only because we’re among friends here. I got a chuckle out of your plaint re Twitter word count. Without a hyphen between “140” and “character,” it sounds like you have 140 character constraints. Which I’m sure isn’t true!

    We all have 140-character constraints.

    • I never said I limited myself to looking stupid on Twitter, haha. Once the reply was posted, I saw the other typo, but never even realized a hyphen was lacking. It is possible, however, and I’d have to dig pretty deep, but I think I could perhaps find 140 character constraints within myself.

  9. “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.”

    Nicely said. In fact if we were speaking from a non-Chomskyan point of view, we might say there are no “language rules” at all, only evolving sets of “language conventions.”

    Codification (e.g. Chicago, etc.) perhaps slows this evolution down here & there the way the shoulders of a stream direct the rush of current – even as they do this, the shoulders erode over time & are remade in new formations.

  10. Many people have commented on the Times story without clicking through to make an informed opinion of the people and websites featured. My blog, http://www.Twitter-Fail.com was one of them, and the response has been huge. Those who do click through to read my blog have discovered some things they didn’t expect:

    1. It’s a humor blog

    2. I don’t scold anyone for grammatical errors (this would be a mistake – just read a post or two and you’ll understand)

    3. It’s an insight into the world of twitter and the people who use it, in a lighthearted, silly way.

    The mission, as stated in my tagline is: “sharing the best, and exposing the best of the worst on twitter.” Nothing mean-spirited, no metaphorical rulers on knuckles, just fun.

    I welcome your readers to read a post or two, and if you still think I’m a “twitter scold,” feel free to tell me so in the comments. I look forward to your feedback.

  11. Pingback: The Copywriter's Soapbox » Fun With Words: The Typo Edition

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