Friday, November 04, 2011

Twitter is Not Ruining Language, Schools Are

Twitter is Not Ruining Language, Schools Are

British actor and secret linguist Ralph Fiennes made headlines a couple weeks ago when he said that Twitter is ruining the English language.

Speaking at the British Film Institute London Film Festival, Fiennes — who has appeared in such movies as "Clash of the Titans" (he played Hades) and "Harry Potter" (Voldemort) — is blaming the erosion of the language on "a world of truncated sentences, soundbites, and Twitter."

Yeah, right. As if. Whatever, dude.

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, Fiennes told the audience, "Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us."

Ask Ernest Hemingway about writing with short words and short sentences. It worked for one of America's greatest writers; it can work for the rest of us.

But I take issue with Fiennes' assertion. Twitter is no more responsible for the decline of language skills than television, music, and texting.

Er, that is, I mean, uhh — okay, TV, music, and texting have a lot to do with it. But not all. And not Twitter.

While I'm curious how and why Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes — yes, that is his real name, including Twisleton; I'm going to use it, because it has more than two syllables and I don't want to "dilute" his name — considers himself enough of an etymologist and linguist, as well as a social media expert, to know whether Twitter is having any effect on the language at all, I do agree that our language is undergoing a spine-shuddering evolution, equivalent to a tortoise suddenly growing wings.

(And if you're counting, that last paragraph contained 86 words, 10 clauses, three independent clauses, all contained in one sentence.)

But what especially irks me is that Ralph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who says he does not use Twitter at all, blames Twitter for the language's decline. It's like a vegan telling you how to grill a steak.

Personally, I blame our educational system as a whole. We've put so much emphasis on math and science, thanks to No Child Left Behind, that reading takes a back seat to the left-brained subjects.

Twitter is not the problem, it's the twits who tied federal funding to school performance, which gave short shrift to students on one of the most important skills they'll need just to get along in life: a grasp of the English language.

I even blame the education system for continuing to foist grammar and language myths on unsuspecting students, like "never end your sentences with a preposition" or "don't split infinitives." Both rules were erroneously created by Latin scholars in the 1700s, and continue to be taught by schools what don't know no better.

Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes told his fellow actors and theatre folks, "you only have to look on Twitter to see evidence of the fact that a lot of English words that are used, say, in Shakespeare's plays or PG Wodehouse novels are so little used that people don't even know what they mean now."

Of course, Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has never looked at Twitter, so it's not like he actually knows how, or even if, it's to blame. And from the research Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has done, it looks like Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes doesn't have his Shakespeare or Wodehouse facts straight either.

According to the Forbes article, Liberman did some computerized text analysis of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," ten popular Wodehouse stories, and the 100 most recent tweets (at the time) from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper, and found some rather surprising results.

The average word length for Hamlet was 3.99 letters per word, 4.05 for Wodehouse's stories, and 4.8 for the Daily Pennsylvanian's tweets.

In other words, a bunch of Twitter-using college journalists who are trained to write short words and short sentences use bigger words than the authors Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes says we're all falling short of.

Frankly, it's an unfair comparison to begin with. Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. He's the bar that no one could ever hope to even come close to. P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite English authors, favors long, twisted sentences and complex words, but he too is one of England's greatest. It's like calling a high school baseball player a failure because he can't hit like Babe Ruth.

Saying that Twitter is ruining the English language is like saying actors who go into popular mainstream blockbuster films — like, say, Clash of the Titans and Harry Potter — are ruining the demand for, and appreciation of, great plays like, well, Shakespeare or Henrik Ibsen.

Of course, I've never acted, which apparently makes me completely qualified to make such a statement.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

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  1. I could not agree more with this. Twitter is constantly blamed for the degradation of the English language by people who probably don't actually know what a tweet is, let alone engage in the activity on a regular basis. Tweeting forces you to use the most precise words and phrases to fit into the allotted space, and I believe I'm a better writer for it.

    Do we use all the words Shakespeare used? Of course not, because language changes and evolves every day. But is it still complex and beautiful? Yes. If we want to see the language continue to thrive, the change starts with us. Don't shy away from sesquipedalia (provided it's the best tool for the job) in spoken communication, but use it as a means to spread your love of words. Sure, people will stare at you strangely and ask you what the hell you're talking about, but it's worth it.

    Ralph (or as he shall henceforth be known, Lord Twisleton) should stick to acting.

  2. "I even blame the education system for continuing to foist grammar and language myths on unsuspecting students, like "never end your sentences with a preposition" or "don't split infinitives." Both rules were erroneously created by Latin scholars in the 1700s, and continue to be taught by schools what don't know no better."

    Aren't all rules "created?" What makes one erroneous and another valid?

  3. Rhett,

    Yes, all rules are created, but some flow out of the natural order of things, while others are imposed when they should not have been.

    Take, for example, the "no prepositions at the end of a sentence." That rule was created by Robert Lowth, a 17th century Latin scholar. He decided that the rule must apply in English, simply because it's true in Latin.

    In Latin, it is incorrect and even impossible to put a preposition at the end of a sentence. But there are many, many cases where it's perfectly alright to do that in English, and the rule should have never been applied in the first place. Hence, it's incorrect.

  4. Tweeting causes you to use the most accurate content to fit into the allocated area, and I believe I'm a better author for it.

    Sincerely yours,
    Allen Carlos


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