Here’s a thing I tweeted today in response to a sad little pile of bullshit (update: screenshotted just before he deleted it) …

twitter screenshot

Delete what you want but the internet is forever

Fuck a duck, where to start. As a former student of linguistics I am so tired of hearing this kind of misguided sneering nonsense, especially since it’s so often aimed at younger generations and marginalized populations. Putting aside all the stylistic/grammatical errors in the original tweet, should one in fact insist upon a formal writing style in all contexts, let me lay out some ways in which it’s just plain wrong.

Let’s start with the concept of register. A register is … let me dig up the Wikipedia definition here* … “variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting.” For example, you don’t talk to your friends at game night the same way you’d talk during a job interview. The words you’d use in a doctoral thesis are not the same you’d use when writing a note to your kid. Registers can even be as specific as “recipe writing” or “newspaper headlines”**. And this isn’t just obscure linguistics stuff, the frickin’ ISO includes register standards.

In other words (and this is a key point here) context matters.

When composing a tweet on a personal Twitter account, we choose what register we’re using based on our intended audience, the tone we want to convey, and the subject matter of the tweet.

Examples (and I’m using my own Twitter feed here because I can consent to use of my own content):

The way I tweet when I’m talking about a topic that interests me on a linguistic/literary level:

The way I tweet, jokingly, when my cats impede my work:

Two different topics, two different intended audiences, two different contexts, two different registers. But just one person, because I contain multitudes. Still with me? Good.

It’s a shallow misconception to assume that people who use nonstandard grammar, capitalization, and/or punctuation do it because they’re lazy or ignorant. It is most often a stylistic choice***. And when you’re communicating in a purely text (or text/photo) medium, these kinds of stylistic choices are super important.

As has been discussed many many many times, in written communication there is no tone of voice, no facial expressions, no gestures, no consistent physical context to give us the cues we normally get from a spoken conversation. We have to convey the same nuances through other means if we want any hope of being interpreted correctly. The registers used in online communication are a huge part of that.

The original 140-character format of Twitter caused a unique register to develop among its users. Some of these, originally intended as a shorthand for searching, became fully-implemented features of the platform (@ing and hashtags). Just like the SMS text messages it was based on, the brevity of the format encouraged abbreviation and a widespread jettisoning of linguistic markers that could be easily inferred. This means — yes — less punctuation and more abbreviation. Words shortened down to just the consonants or a single vowel. Themes marked by a simple hashtag instead of extra lines of prose.

All of this improved communication on Twitter. People could still read it. They could infer tone and nuance from a single hashtag or a prematurely-ended sentence. Ideas were conveyed, and that’s the fucking point of language in the first place, isn’t it?

My response to the original prescriptivist bullshit wasn’t my usual tweeting style. Instead, it was written to evoke a common US cultural meme (Morpheus from The Matrix), in an unpunctuated and uncapitalized style mimicking the stream-of-consciousness posts that are common on Tumblr. The overall effect is an implication that my statement will blow the OP’s mind, with an added “ironic”**** contrast between the casual writing style and the scholarly language used. I’m spelling that out in every boring detail because apparently some silly assholes pretend not to understand this sort of thing.

This is all to say (I will resist a segue to the plums in the icebox) that if you sneer and complain about people not using a formal register on Twitter, especially if you type two spaces after a period, you either fundamentally misunderstand how to communicate on shared social media or you’re just a sad, ignorant asshole.

tl;dr version: Fuck right off with that prescriptivist nonsense, b/c language is about communication not rules

* Yes, Wikipedia. For simple definitions of linguistic terms it’s pretty reliable and I used to recommend it to my students for this purpose when I was a TA.

** Grabbed these examples from my dusty copy of Contemporary Linguistics (not an affiliate link).

*** And if it’s not a stylistic choice — who the fuck cares? You don’t need an A in English 101 to “earn” the right to express yourself online.

**** Ironic is in quotes here because no matter how you use this word you’ll get jumped on for misusing it.