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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.

Today I’m unveiling a little side project I’ve been doing off and on for the past few months, one that I previewed a bit in last week’s All of what sudden? post. It’s called SeeTweet, and it generates maps with the locations of the most recent tweets containing a search term. So if, for instance, you want to assess the geographical extent of a dialectal variant, you can. Let’s say you’ve been hearing about the needs done construction, as in

(1) Maybe the majority’s attitude needs adjusted

and now you want to know where people say something so silly. Well, SeeTweet can tell you:

Needs fixed map

Mapping "needs fixed" with SeeTweet

As you can see, it’s pretty well localized to a stretch from Iowa to central Pennsylvania, a region similar to the (North?) Midland dialect region.* Of course, this particular case doesn’t need SeeTweet. Murray, Frazer, and Simon wrote a series of papers detailing the geographic range of this and related usages (e.g., wants done) in the late 90s, and the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project has also mapped known usages of needs done. But whereas this previous work has required a lot of time and effort, SeeTweet provides a quick and easy approximation, a starting point for more advanced investigations.

It’s no replacement for the YGDP or the Dictionary of American Regional English, of course; it’s much noisier data than either of these projects. It can offer a different kind of view, though, one that can be assembled to track more ephemeral usages (e.g., event-related usages like “Carmaggedon” or “Jerry Meals“) in real-time, as well as assembling a lot of data on persistent usages (e.g., pop and soda).

So I’m hoping that you’ll be able to go out and use SeeTweet to look into the geographical distribution of something interesting, whether for academic purposes or just to waste time at the end of the week. I’ve put together some sample investigations in a SeeTweet gallery, and I’d love to see what sort of great uses you’ll put it to. If you find something neat, leave a comment here or in the gallery, or send an email to

[A couple of friends offered great advice/testing on earlier versions of SeeTweet and must be acknowledged for it. Thanks to Dan (who came up with the name SeeTweet), Rodolfo, Maria, Casey, Ari, Rebecca, Noah, Anoush, and Chris.]

*: There are a couple of dots out West, but I’m betting that those are from immigrants like me who were raised in the Midland region and ended up out West.

I jest about the uselessness of Twitter, but I find myself more and more defending it to the people in my daily life, a sure sign that I am crossing over into some sort of addiction that I ought to be fighting. One of the agents of this addiction is the Fake AP Stylebook, which offers one- and two-liners in the style of, well, a stylebook. For instance:

Thorough research is the key to quality reporting. Read the ENTIRE Wikipedia article before writing your story.

Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!

Use English measurement units to avoid confusing readers: “The suspect was four cubits, eight barleycorns in height.”

The folks behind the Fake AP Stylebook (who call themselves The Bureau Chiefs) followed up on this with a book, Write More Good, which I received a copy of recently. I was looking forward to reading it, because I enjoy the stylebook entry parody format, but I was also a bit concerned that it wouldn’t translate well to a book. As it turns out, The Bureau Chiefs felt the same; the book breaks out of the 140-character Twitter restrictions and places its jokes into paragraphs, maintaining a quick-fire approach to the joke delivery, but also giving the jokes a bit more chance to develop, like the slow-aged bourbons that The Chiefs prefer.

[Cover of Write More Good]

The book, like the Twitter feed, is all about writing and journalism, and it presents a surprisingly honest look at the field — the sort of harsh yet good-natured honesty that only good Horatian satire can provide.* Shots are taken at the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, be them “Give the readers what they want”, “Every story has two equal sides”, or “Armageddon waits around every corner”. The chapter on science reporting was full of stuff like this:

“When it comes to the possibility that global warming is caused by human behavior, the opinion of a man with an MBA who does consulting work for oil companies is just as valid as the opinion of a man with multiple doctorates in climatology […] The opinions of the former may even be more useful, as he is less likely to be prejudiced by spending too much time on the subject.”


“Replacing FIVE NEW EXTRASOLAR PLANETS DISCOVERED with HAVE ASTRONOMERS FOUND THE REAL PLANET PANDORA? could mean the difference between another night of instant ramen and a string of filet mignon dinners at five-star restaurants.” [BTW, This really happens.]

The writers are not out for blood. They mock, but they mock lovingly. Sure, journalists might not be living up to the standards we’d desire, but a lot of that is due to the readers, and they are not spared:

“[…] don’t try too hard to make the math portions of your writing understandable. If someone with a nontechnical background reads it and realizes they can actually follow what you’re saying, the result will not be a lightbulb going off and the realization that maybe math isn’t so scary. They will instead make sure no one saw them doing math and, if if anyone was watching, they’ll explain that, ha ha, they just happened to open up the newspaper to some math: Oh, man, what was THAT doing there? I must have picked up someone else’s paper because, no sir, not me—math is gay.”

At first it seems like a silly little book, but in the end it makes a number of good points. Journalists are falling short of their ideal. Owners care about cash more than journalism. And — the one that really resonated with me — even as we non-journalists bemoan the state of modern journalism, we’re all complicit in its downfall.

At the same time, the book is positively hilarious. Even as I winced, even as I regretted the times I’ve read an article about a puppy parade and skipped the one about a political debate, I kept on laughing. It’s Horatian satire at its best, funny and a bit admonishing. The Chiefs have put up Chapter 3 of the book online for you to judge for yourself whether it’s worth reading. I recommend it heartily.

*: Another good thing about the book is that it got me to look into the history of satire a bit. Apparently, there are two schools of satire: the Horatian school, which views the satirized subject as folly and criticizes it with light-hearted humor, and the Juvenalian school, which views the satirized subject as evil and ridicules it scathingly. The things one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know!

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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