A Linguistic Perspective on Twitter: SMS Compatibility vs. Journalism Standards

Since the launch of Twitter back in 2006, the premise that any message, or tweet as it is referred to, is limited to 140 characters or less has dominated the use of the social networking site. This distinguishes Twitter from most other social networks, where people are free to express themselves in just as many characters they want to.

Despite the intentional character limitation, Twitter has become especially popular amongst journalist. A study from 2013 surveying more than 500 journalists in 14 different countries shows that just around 59 % of journalists worldwide use Twitter. This is interesting, as the 140-character limit enhances compatibility with SMS, thereby turning the shorthand notion and slang use into actual qualities on the expense of traditional journalism qualities such as meticulousness, proper use of grammar, and articulate writing.

Here are just a few examples of professional journalists making grammar or spelling mistakes, leaving out words, or using weird abbreviations:

The examples seem to be never-ending, and the tweets above represent only a fraction of these. Nevertheless, they each illustrate different linguistic trends on Twitter.

The first tweet from CNN is clearly ‘just’ a typo, where »is« is supposed to be replaced by »the first«. Sure, you can find typos in traditional newspapers as well, but it just seems to happen more often in Twitter’s rapid changing environment, where being first appears to be more important than proof reading – especially for a Twitter account dedicated to (more or less) breaking news.

The second tweet from the multimedia innovations editor at The Wall Street Journal, Neal Mann, shows him consistently leaving out articles (»the« quite a few times), while the third tweet from TV2 Denmark correspondent, Rasmus Tantholdt, is dominated by abbreviations (»MFA«, »abt« and »IS«). The SMS-like style in both tweets is not so much a consequence of being in a hurry as for the CNN tweet, but more a natural outcome of the 140 character limitation. You simply have to do something to stay on the right side of 140 characters. Even if you have enough characters to get your message out without skipping words or using abbreviations, it is tempting to do so anyway as the format almost encourages it.

And hey, everyone else does it!

In other words, it appears that journalists sometimes sacrifice linguistic accuracy in order to make their message fit both the social conventions and format of Twitter. Whether you like the it or not, you probably have to get used to the ‘Twitter linguistics” as the social network grows in popularity every day without any sign of slowing down.

This is definitely bad news for all you ‘grammar nazis’ out there, so let’s end this post with a video you might find comfort in.

Don’t let those word crimes get to you!


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