Twitter: Subverting the English language?

The negative effect of LOL-speak and fractured grammar.

The negative effect of LOL-speak and fractured grammar

When I received an invitation from Mark Ragan to sign up for his Twitter feed, I probably would have ignored it had it not been for a word in his post script: “Tweet up.” As a public relations consultant, I see the value of Twitter for some businesses to build their brands (although I don’t recommend my physician clients use Twitter), but as a writer, I find the medium toxic to lucid writing, and I told him so. He invited me to write a column for Ragan.com about the issue.

There are growing signs that excessive use of direct messaging, especially Twitter, leads to an erosion of the English language. College professors are seeing LOL-speak, fractured grammar, informal acronyms and emoticons crop into college essays. Teachers are noticing more punctuation errors (especially apostrophe errors), spelling mistakes, and inconsistent capitalization usually found only in text messages and Twitter posts. More students are failing English exams due to a lack of basic grammar skills.

Certainly, educators are partly to blame, especially when they fail to enforce proper grammar instruction and cave in to the SMS-texting lingo in the classroom. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center on “Writing, Technology and Teens” reveals that nearly two-thirds of all teens use some informal styles from their text-based communications in their school assignments, a fact that should trouble most educators.

Editors, too, are seeing submissions from writers with butchered words like “dat” (that), “2” (to), “pases” (passes), “4” (for),” and “cuz” (because). Now, thanks to Twitter, we’re seeing made-up words. The “tweeters” seem to relish taking an existing word and corrupting it by adding the initial consonant “tw.” For example, flirting is now “twirting” and fisticuffs now “twisticuffs.”

Some tweeters think they are showing how clever they are by inventing completely bogus words like “tweeps” (twitter peeps, or friends), and “twite” (a Twitter message that’s particularly trite, which may be an oxymoron). My vote for the most ridiculous non-word? “Tweetsult”—three letters longer than the word it means—insult. There’s even a movement to create a style guide for Twitter renamed “Strunk and Twite.” Twanks, but no twanks.

Twitter addicts are also famous for dropping vowel sounds in words and inserting incorrect vowels in others (for some reason, “definitely” is frequently spelled with an “a” in Twitter-speak), and apostrophe errors are rampant. The words “a lot” have become one word. Twitter-speak is gradually creeping into other social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. One of my Facebook friends didn’t even spell out the words “are” and “you” in a sentence, opting for the conventional Twitter acronyms. Do we really have to abbreviate everything, even short words? I wouldn’t be surprised if I would see a sentence like this soon:

BTW, did U know IMHO people on FB don’t meet FTF, but send a DM to their friends? If I have to send U a RT on that, I’ll be LOL. LMK what you think. Thx. TTYL.”

(WARNING: If you understand this you have been spending too much time tweeting.)

In his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr argues that the core of our educational system centers on the capacity and ability to concentrate. Today’s online communication tools are threatening that model, and young minds are being reconstituted. Difficult texts and complex ideas are harder to grasp, and sustained focus becomes impossible.

New York Times reporter Mark Richtel explores that concept in his continuing series on how online communication is affecting the mind. He writes that those who identify themselves as multitaskers—constant users of Twitter, texting, and online chatting—are less efficient at juggling problems and completing work. The more time we spend consuming and exchanging rapid bits of scattered information, the less creative we become. Is it any wonder that the new attention-deficient Millennials find it difficult to express coherent thoughts on a page?

I’ve read claims from Twitter defenders who state that tweeting actually improves creative writing because it forces you to summarize your thoughts in less than 140 characters. More twaddle! Yes, Twitter forces you to be concise, but so does a Post-it note. While Twitter is fine for brief status updates or breaking news (provided it is real news), it’s not the place you’ll see creative writing. My old friend Bruce Sterling shocked many cyberpunks in Austin, Texas, last year when he blasted Twitter as a venue for creative communications. “Using Twitter for literate communication,” he said, “is about as likely as firing up a CB Radio and hearing some guy recite the Iliad.”

Our nation was born from the pens of sagacious writers such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. In the late 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau elevated the essay to a true art form. Americans could spell, write full sentences, and actually articulate thought on a page. Today’s generation of college graduates has difficulty writing a coherent two-page essay, but many of them are getting jobs in public relations over more skilled communicators because employers perceive them as “social media experts.” They may be social media butterflies, but they are not communicators.

Michael C. Burton is an author and communications consultant in North Carolina.

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