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A prescriptivist confronts Twitter — and blinks

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If you teach writing for a living, you tread that fine line between prescriptivism and descriptivism. A prescriptivist (which, sadly, I lean toward) is one who harrumphs over a misplaced apostrophe (even when meaning is quite clear) and tells people how language ought to be used according to her strict interpretations of the language’s rules of the road. Think William Safire.

A descriptivist views language as it is written, as it develops, without the harrumph, harrumph. She systematically studies linguistic change and records it without comment.

I raise the issue — to harrumph or not to harrumph — because I recently harrumphed … a lot. One of my graduates, who is distinguishing himself in his first newspaper job, is tweeting his stories at light speed to promote them. As you know, tweets are capped at 140 characters. So Twitterati tend to use shorthand, abbreviations, and other things about which I have no clue to express a thought. Frankly, to me most tweets I see represent a lack of planning on what to say and how to say it. But I have to teach journalism students how to wisely use Twitter. So it’s my prescriptivism versus their linguistic inventions and generational conventions.

So my former student (let’s call him, oh, Charles) wrote this 137-character tweet:

John Gross, controversial Niagara Falls contractor, was back in federal court this morning on 2 fel. chgs. He faces up to 23 yrs in jail.

2“? Instead of “two“? “fel. chgs.“? We’re now deleting vowels and consonants from words? Surely this did not have to be! Perhaps delete “controversial.” Or “Niagara” if “Falls” is a city’s nickname. “yrs“? Really? Oh, be still, my prescriptivist heart.

So I harrumphed as only a tenured professor can and called Charles to detail the errors of his ways. I’m sure he’s still smarting from the sting of my AP Stylebook whip.

But after reflection, I think I was wrong, and Charles was right.

Did I recognize “fel. chgs.” as “felony charges“? Yes. Did I recognize “yrs” as “years“? Yes. Did I have sufficient understanding of the context of the story to challenge his decision to use “controversial“? No. Did Charles’ tweet adequately communicate meaning? Yes.

Newsmen and women these days use Twitter as one more means to promote their work. Charles even tweets about his colleagues’ stories. Filing on Twitter is another piece added to the backbreaking workload in a newsroom diminishing in staff size. A tweet is necessarily an act of haste. But as Charles does more of it, he will become more efficient. Journalists these days must take on the added task of promoting their work and “establishing their brand” (a phrase that still makes me feel icky, even though I’ve been doing it for six years).

In the coming semesters, I’ll be requiring my students to post their work and promote it — using Twitter among other avenues. I’m going to have to walk a fine line between my inherent prescriptivism and their invention of a language designed to fit a small space.

But I’ll tell them this: Writing a tweet is nothing more than writing to fit, something journalists have done for generations. A tweet is about 22 to 25 words, less if a tiny URL is used. After all, I require them to write headlines of between six and nine words. That, too, is writing to fit. Both are condensed versions of stories that may be several hundred words in length.

So I will see, and perhaps grudgingly accept, what has been anathema to me for my entire professional career — breaking AP style, overlooking punctuation requirements for errant comma splices, and words missing letters. (Another former student, knowing how much I value “omit needless words,” sent me a mug with this legend: “Omt ndlss vwls.” Guess I’d better get used to it.)

But there’s one line they better not cross: I will not allow anyone to drive the last nail into the coffin for the apostrophe. I better not see “its” instead of “it’s.” And I don’t want to hear “my thumbs are too big” as an excuse.

I will probably harrumph less, but I will harrumph nonetheless when I see too many prescriptivist lines crossed.

Meaning matters. Clarity matters. They can tweet “fel. chgs.” if they wish, but it better be crystal clear in the context of the tweet. Too little regard for prescriptivism may leave their tweets less than credible, and their reputations as content creators less than competent.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 2, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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