Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

One Response to “Don’t touch that tweet”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The wonder of Woolsworths | Ten minutes past deadline - November 10, 2020

    […] we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: