Self-anointed guardians of the English language show an amazing, amusing lack of respect for the language they purport to protect.
Phil Corbett, Standards Editor of the New York Times, decreed this week that tweet was not “standard English” and thus not fit for the news columns of the Times, except under special conditions, perhaps a doctor’s excuse or a note from the bird’s mother.
One of my favorite things about our language is how fluid, inventive and expressive it is. We don’t speak or write now as they did in the age of Chaucer or Shakespeare, or even in the groovy 1960s when I was growing up. Yet each new word or expression is vigorously resisted by people who cherish the past of language but wish to deny it a future.
Corbett’s message telling Times journalists to eschew the word (first reported by The Awl on Thursday) drips with disapproval (use of boldface is mine, highlighting words I will note in comments later):
Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.
Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.
Of course, new technology terms sprout and spread faster than ever. And we don’t want to seem paleolithic. But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.
One test is to ask yourself whether people outside of a target group regularly employ the terms in question. Many people use Twitter, but many don’t; my guess is that few in the latter group routinely refer to “tweets” or “tweeting.” Someday, “tweet” may be as common as “e-mail.” Or another service may elbow Twitter aside next year, and “tweet” may fade into oblivion. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the word itself seems so inherently silly.)
“Tweet” may be acceptable occasionally for special effect. But let’s look for deft, English alternatives: use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use “say” or “write.”
Eight points about this:
- I like to refrain from guessing myself, but since Corbett’s edict was based on conjecture (I was not aware that the standards of the New York Times included guessing), I think it would be appropriate in this context. And I’m going to guess that more people routinely refer to tweets or tweeting than routinely use ornithological, paleolithic or neologisms, but any of those words could appear in the Times without a single paragraph of disapproval from the Standards Editor, much less five paragraphs. If you want facts, rather than guesses about how regularly or routinely a word is used, I googled some words Corbett used: Tweet gets 73 million hits (most, I’m guessing not in the ornithological context), to 1 million each for ornithological and paleolithic and 385,000 for neologism. Hmmm, I wonder if Corbett would bless the use of “google” (another inherently silly word) as a verb?
- Furthermore, I am going to guess that in pursuing news stories, the New York Times prefers establishing facts in its news reporting, rather than holding back to wait for other news media to establish them. And it’s no guess to state that ordinary journalism is not the standard for the New York Times.
- The dictionary defines deft as “dexterous; nimble; skillful; clever.” None of those words applies to Corbett’s clumsy use of two and three words where one would suffice.
- How arrogant to decide whether a word is used in the Times based on an editor’s opinion of how serious it is. Is the Times as demanding of words that are inherently stuffy as it is of this allegedly silly word?
- Tweet is hardly the latest jargon. Twitter was a well-known and widely discussed phenomenon at least two years ago. Last year, Twitter’s role in telling the story of the unrest in Iran was a major (and not silly) international story. Vuvuzela is the latest jargon (to the Times’ largely American audience anyway). Did I miss Corbett’s memo insisting that Times writers instead write “loud, plastic stadium horn” in their World Cup coverage? By comparison, tweet is actually well established.
- You know, the New York Times has written a fair amount about Twitter. Is Corbett suggesting that Times readers are not smart enough to learn after all that reporting what a tweet is?
- If the word has appeared 18 times in recent Times articles (and probably would have appeared more, if not edited out by editors sharing Corbett’s dim view), might that not indicate that tweet is in wider use than he suggests?
- Much of the world spells email without a hyphen. I presume the Times will drop that nonsense about when it grudgingly accepts tweet. In that vein, I can’t help pointing out that BFF, a colloquialism used on the Gray Lady’s front page Friday morning, doesn’t have periods, except in the Times. When you use a colloquialism for special effect, please use it correctly.
Amusingly, Corbett told Yahoo! News that The Awl’s headline, ‘New York Times’ Bans the Word ‘Tweet’ was mistaken (again, the boldface is mine, for later reference):
“I think it wouldn’t really be right to say the word’s banned,” Corbett told Yahoo! News after the Awl’s post quickly bounced around the Twitterverse.
As for banning, Corbett said he doesn’t actually have the power to issue such decrees. “I can’t even convince people to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly,” he said.
“It’s guidance,” he said. “It’s trying to put people on alert that, in my humble opinion, ‘tweet’ is a word that hasn’t become … dictionary-level standard English.”
Five points on that:
- Given Corbett’s respect for the dictionary, I checked the meaning of ban. I think the “informal denunciation” definition certainly fits. And perhaps the “ecclesiastical curse” definition.
- I need to find an appropriate word for Corbett’s efforts to downplay his proclamation, one old-fashioned enough to pass New York Times muster: balderdash. He is the Standards Editor, and the announcement of his appointment described that position as the “newsroom’s voice for all standards and ethics questions relating to content and news coverage, both in the printed newspaper and on the web.” If that person declares that a word doesn’t meet the standards, it’s been banned, even if it occasionally slips through, like a misused who or whom.
- I normally don’t correct people’s word usage because that’s such an annoying thing to do, but in this context, I think it’s appropriate to note that Corbett misused convince. As an old copy editor, I know (and Corbett should know, too, if he doesn’t) that you convince someone of a point of view, say that using who and whom correctly is important. You persuade someone to action, such as using who and whom correctly.
- On the other hand, Corbett is correct that this meaning of tweet has not yet made the dictionary. But let’s be honest, in covering the news, it would not be acceptable for the New York Times, or any news organization, to move at dictionary speed. You’re not the New York Behind-the-Times.
- While the dictionary doesn’t yet bless tweet, the American Dialect Society (which was probably a year behind) proclaimed it the 2009 Word of the Year.
For what it’s worth, the AP Stylebook (which has differed through the years with the Times on other matters, too) approves the use of tweet, as noted, appropriately, in a tweet from @APStylebook. AP even blessed retweet. (Alas, @FakeAPStylebook has not yet weighed in on the matter.) Slate was sympathetic to Corbett’s distaste for tweet.
I should note that Times staffers have been smart and aggressive in their use of Twitter. Jennifer Preston has done a nice job in her year as social media editor. I enjoy following the tweets of several current and former Times staffers: Nick Kristof, Jenny 8. Lee, Patrick LaForge, David Carr, David Pogue, Tim O’Brien. @nytimes is approaching 2.4 million followers and has posted more than 46,000 tweets (does Corbett have the clout to change that word on the Times’ Twitter page?). Print circulation is 1.4 million on Sunday, less than 1 million daily.
Preston and LaForge downplayed the fuss to their tweeps:
Preston asked her tweeps for their thoughts:
And the tweeps responded:
I made one more guess: that Corbett, whom I can’t find on Twitter (and who will notice that I’m using who and whom correctly here), delivered this edict without consulting Preston. So I asked her (by Twitter direct message) and she confirmed: “I didn’t know it was coming.”
As with the tweeps, she tried to downplay Corbett’s memo: “But it is not new. It is old news.” I suspect she knows better. The memo from the Standards Editor was new, even if tweet was already frowned upon. And when the Standards Editor of the New York Times doesn’t understand how our language is changing, that’s news.