Twitter Syntax


What can be said in 140 characters? Apparently many, many things of interest, judging by the skyrocketing popularity of Twitter.  Both derided and adulated, Twitter is probably here to stay as a form of communication. People are communicating more and more through short, immediate digital messages via all sorts of new social media apps. (I could have written ‘applications’ but that sounds too formal, almost stuffy.) Short forms, nicknames, abbreviations are ubiquitous in writing today, and gaining acceptance. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, depending on how they are employed. For example, just in terms of spelling there are three kinds of ‘spelling alterations’ in these messages: 1) typos by fumbling fingers (can happen to anyone),  2) ignorant people who really can’t spell, and 3) savvy people who can spell, but are trying to pack stylish, informative messages into the character constraints. BTW, (it’s so natural to write that now, why bother with the heavy-footed ‘by the way’ which doesn’t add to the meaning), many people who can’t spell are still effective, engaging communicators with the digital short form.

So the 140 char constraint (did it again, ‘char’ not ‘character’) obviously has led to a more telegraphic, headline-style prose in the syntax of Twitter messages.  This is especially true for the big news providers who are trying to pull in audiences via Twitter. Their standard grammar is usually a brief headline ‘hook’ followed by a link (usually a short url to a full-blown website or blog).

Here’s a recent one from physorg.com, a science site.

physorg.com Relationship breakdown – the real cost http://bit.ly/bMDM14

It’s completely obvious to a reader what they should do for more information on this story — click the http link. For most readers, there is no useful information in the actual characters included in the url – less mental processing is required than if the reader read on a written page ‘go to page 9’. In that case, the reader has to turn pages, their eyes scanning for the character ‘9’. With links you just hit your finger on the ‘active text’ and that’s it.

Links, which we all take for granted now and depend on, have introduced a new dimension to linear writing. This fact has been noted by many for a long time, I wonder if we really understand how much (or how little) it may change basic phrase and sentence patterns of everyday written text.  There is another style even more link-oriented than the news type shown above; this other style is used when the messages are primarily social in nature.

A recent example from a fun person I follow on Twitter – I think she shows mastery of this second style.

ladyleet #startuplunch today, 12pm, sushi 85 in mountain view. come join! @t @r @y @m @0 etc

Hashtags, e.g., #startuplunch, are a powerful referential device in Twitter and eliminate the need for lengthy explanation. They point to topics or threads in Twitter where specific topics are under discussion.  The reader types in the hashtag and learns a number of things, who the participants are and whatever communications these participants felt was relevant to the topic at hand. Good style here means an informative hashtag. The one above describes itself succinctly. The ‘@’ list are the other participants (names shortened here for some sense of privacy) and the reader can find their Twitter profiles via the @name. Texting is not writing and it is not speech, it’s something in-between. It’s good that it has its own term, ‘texting’, and the ‘link’ dimension of this form of communication makes it incredibly versatile and powerful.

The interesting question is, given all the hours per day that we are engaged in this syntactic form of linked, telegraphic and participant-aware language, what’s the spill-over to other realms, e.g., full-blown blogs and printed magazines, fiction and non-fiction, the slang and styles we use when talking face to face?

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