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I’ve been looking through some unfinished drafts of posts from last year, trying to toss some of them together into something meaningful, and I found one that was talking about the stupid Gizmodo “Hashtags are ruining English” piece from last January. (Given hashtag‘s selection as ADS Word of the Year, I think that claim has been safely rebutted.) Apparently, in a fit of light madness, I read through the piece’s comments. I didn’t find any of them particularly noteworthy, save one. A commenter named Ephemeral wrote:

“The point is that texting and hashtags are at the root of the increasing illiteracy. Why worry about what an adjective is? If it doesn’t fit in my 140 character limit, it could be an adverb, for all I care. And, if it can’t be reduced to a less-than-five-character ‘word’ with letters and digits, then I am not interested anyway. [...] #ltr8″

The rant doesn’t really make any sense (character limits are making kids confuse adverbs and adjectives?), but the point is clear: Ephemeral is mad because kids today just use whatever the hell they feel like to express themselves.

To drive home the point, Ephemeral adds a hashtag to the end of the comment: #ltr8. That’s one of those “less-than-five-character ‘words’”, you’ll note. Except that no one uses this tag. (Literally no one.) I can only guess that the intended hashtag was a leet-speak version of later, which would be #l8r. #ltr8 would be, I don’t know, “later-ate”?

If it were the case that one could say later by typing in ltr8 and pronouncing it “later”, then maybe that would be indicative of increasing illiteracy (or mild dyslexia). But this isn’t the case, as the Google results show, and what little sense there was in Ephemeral’s point falls apart. It’s not because Ephemeral’s making an error while complaining about an error, which wouldn’t negate a valid argument. It’s because Ephemeral is declaring something simplistic despite not being able to understand it.

This is rampant in armchair linguistic analysis, and really irritating. Non-standard dialects are the prime example of this; if you ask people unfamiliar with it to speak African-American Vernacular English (i.e., ugh, “Ebonics”), all they’re going to do is stop conjugating verbs in the present tense. “I be real happy,” they might say. No wonder these same people would view it as a deficient form of English; according to their knowledge of it, it’s just Standard American English with a few rules taken out.

But the truth is that there are extensive differences between AAVE and SAE, including an ability in AAVE to distinguish between past tenses that SAE doesn’t morphologically distinguish. In terms of speaking about the past, it would have to be SAE that’s the deficient dialect. But because the people griping about AAVE haven’t tried to learn it, they don’t see any additional structure, and assume it must be deficient.

So too with textspeak. If you don’t understand the patterns, and you really think that #ltr8 is something that people would say to each other despite its flouting of reason, then of course you’ll see think it deficient. In your mind, anyone can say anything in textspeak, even if it’s nonsense. Since there are apparently no rules whatsoever in textspeak, it’s no surprise if you perceive it as a bogeyman out to destroy your rule-based language. But if you find out that #ltr8 isn’t acceptable in texts, maybe you start to realize that textspeak has rules, albeit different (and less strictly enforced) ones from formal English.

What I think I’m getting at here is that before you say “X is decreasing literacy”, make sure that you are sufficently literate in X to know what you’re talking about.

Gizmodo ran an article last week by Sam Biddle, titled “How the Hashtag is Ruining the English Language”. And, as I’ve begun to realize articles titled “How X is doing Y” tend to do, it forgets to explain how exactly the hashtag* is ruining English; at best, it presents a mildly convincing case that the hashtag has become an overused catchphrase.

So what’s wrong with hashtagging? It’s not that Biddle’s against categorizing tweets; he’s against a recent semantic expansion of hashtagging. Many people have taken to what I’m going to refer to as meta-hashtagging, where hashes are used not as category labels but rather as paralinguistic markers. Biddle doesn’t care for it, largely because he thinks that “the hashtag is conceptually out of bounds, being used by computer conformists without rules, sense, or intelligence”.

But is that the case? The use of the meta-hashtag is certainly noisy; some people use it incompetently, and others idiosyncratically. But if we look at the general usage patterns, I think there’s actually substantial structure to it. The primary usage of the meta-hashtag is to make meta-commentary — that is, commentary on what you’re saying, often from a slightly different point of view. This is not something new; Susan Orlean discussed it on the New Yorker‘s site in June 2010.

For instance, @ourboldhero is the guy that I really learned the meta-hashtag from, when he posted things like:

Scare quotes on Wikipedia may be my new favorite thing: Smelting involves more than just “melting the metal out of its ore” #ohwikipedia

Morning Dan knew that if he threw out the last of the toothpaste I’d have to go shopping at some point tonight, and buy him milk #wellplayed

In both of these cases, if I were reading them aloud, I’d say the hashtagged material in a different voice from the rest of it, complete with hand gestures and overwrought facial expressions. These hashtagged phrases can function like a narrator or, as @EllieTr neatly put it, a chorus in a Greek play. They can offer the author’s opinion on someone else’s writing, as in the first tweet, or a just change the point-of-view from the tweeter to a more neutral, narrator-like view, as in the second. (Also, note that these hashtags double as reasonable category labels.)

There are many different applications of the meta-hashtag. I can’t put together an entire ontology of meta-hashtagging, but let me talk about two additional prominent uses that show there is more going on than just a confederacy of dunces misusing the pound sign because they think it makes them cool. (This is going to overlap a bit with Language Log’s post on hashtags.)

One use is to indicate a general sense of the preceding material. Biddle does this in his opening paragraph: “Unfortunately, the hashtag is ruining talking. #NotGonnaLie”. This type of usage was probably the spawn of the meta-hashtag — it’s category-like in that it classifies the tweet, but it’s also adding information about the tweet itself.

Another common use I’ve seen is to indicate irony, as discussed at some length by Ben Zimmer. Biddle’s article targets #winning, the meme that took off as everyone chuckled as Charlie Sheen’s mental health flew apart in front of our eyes. Biddle objects:

“#Winning. It took off as the lowbrow badge of choice across Twitterdom, signifying success without showing it. You could say the saddest heap of shit, add #winning, and that seven letter thumbs up would make it OK.”

But the truth is that it isn’t serious. #Winning has never been the same as winning. No one thought Charlie Sheen was really winning when he said he was; he was falling apart. When people tweet that they’re #winning, it generally doesn’t seem to be for something honestly great. It’s used ironically, for something falling somewhere on the spectrum between mildly good and actually embarrassing:

Just bought 75 glow sticks for $5 #winning. New Years is gonna be awesome. It’s the #simple things in life that make me happy.
my dad is cooking ribs tonight!! #winning.
My longest trip for the past week has been from my bed to my couch #winning

There are a variety of other uses I’ve seen, from adding emphasis to suggesting a pause between sentences. As a result, I disagree with Biddle’s classification of the meta-hashtag as “without rules, sense, or intelligence”. There is a pattern to it, and one that is, I suspect, increasing its clarity rather than decreasing it.

Biddle is right that meta-hashtagging is often used incompetently — but the same could be said of humor, of rhetorical devices, of all of language. Do we ban analogies because many writers offer bad ones? No, we grit through the bad and wait for the good.

Meta-hashtagging has been and will continue to be used infelicitously. No question there. But it’s also used cleverly, and I find that the good uses outweigh the bad. Even if you don’t share my opinion that the meta-hashtag is an interesting addition to language, surely you can agree that it’s a serious underestimation of the strength of language to suppose it could be ruined by something so insignificant as the pound sign.

And on that point, I have to ask why Biddle thinks that the meta-hashtag is going ruin English. Here are the five reasons I found in his article:

  1. It’s used without an obvious pattern
  2. People could just use regular words
  3. It’s an inside joke amongst Twitter users
  4. It’s a “lazy reach for substance”
  5. Noam Chomsky doesn’t use it

I don’t agree with these points, especially the first. But suppose we take them at face value. How do these five points lead to the conclusion that meta-hashtagging is ruining English? They’re limited little things that can’t do anything to the rest of the language. In fact, I suspect that Biddle knows this and that he’s just going in for a bit of cheap hyperbole — the exact same sort of cheap hyperbole that he’s accusing the users of #winning of doing. As Biddle himself might have said,

“You could complain about the tiniest bit of English, add ‘it’s ruining the English language’, and that five word thumbs down would make it unacceptable.”

*: For readers who aren’t familiar with hashtagging, it’s when someone writes a word prefaced by a pound sign (e.g., #eating). Hashtags arose on Twitter as a way of classifying tweets. Suppose you want to see what everyone’s saying about something really cool, like, let’s say, grammar. If you just search for “grammar”, you’ll get false positives from “grammar school” and junk like that. But if someone put #grammar in the tweet, they’re saying “this tweet is about grammar”, so searching for #grammar drops the false positives substantially. Hashtags function as categories within Twitter, but it’s a very ephemeral category structure, since the tags are generated by users. If you haven’t before, try searching for something in its hashtagged and nonhashtagged forms before continuing.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.

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