Friday, June 11, 2010

A Tweet by Any Other Name...

In a sign that the lines between news writing, social media and medium criticism continue to be erased, the standards editor of the New York Times made a somewhat surprising decision: The word “tweet” as a way to refer to activity on Twitter is not “standard English.”

Reporters at the Times are being encouraged to use “use Twitter… write on Twitter… a Twitter update” among other alternatives for both the noun and verb usages of tweet. This news comes according to an item posted on the blog The Awl early yesterday, which quoted directly from the editor’s letter to his staff.

Interestingly, this puts the Grey Lady at odds with the AP Stylebook, usual arbiter of general usage in the journalism world. According to a tweet from @APStylebook (not to be confused with @FakeAPStylebook, though you should follow both), “Under #apstyle, tweet can be used as a noun, for a Twitter message, or as a verb, for sending a tweet.”

Of course, the Stylebook is a set of guidelines, not an instruction manual. And the Times sets the agenda when it comes to journalistic practices like few, if any, other publications.

But refusing to use tweet seems to violate a basic rule of print journalism. That is, why use three words when one works just fine? If a Times reader is interested in an article where tweets are prominently involved, can’t we safely assume that the word is standard English to that reader? And the editor’s own letter uses the word “Paleolithic,” which I would submit is not standard English (or, more accurately English of any kind, being entirely borrowed from Greek) to a large portion of the media consumers in the English-speaking world. So it’s unclear what the standard is for “standard” English.

The Times is in the right when it seeks to avoid jargon that would confuse readers and obscure the power of its journalism. But at the point when almost two billion tweets enter the world, we’ve probably crossed the line from jargon into common usage.

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