Gregory is … contemplating the linguistics of statusing

by Gregory Korte on June 5, 2009

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(Self-plagiarism disclosure: This post is a compilation of previous observations I’ve made, mostly on Facebook or on in this comment currently awaiting moderation at the Oxford University Press blog.)

There’s been much hand-wringing lately about how social networking is changing journalism.

Frankly, I’m more interested in how it’s changing language:  How it has forced users into peculiar, unnatural, inventive ways of writing, and what that writing reveals about how people of about themselves and their world.

Last winter, a friend of mine confided that she was beginning to think in the first person, prefacing every daily activity in her head with, “Mandy is….”

Two months later, Facebook made a subtle change to the way it prompted users for their status updates. Instead of the previous “Gregory is …”, the site simply gave a big empty box under the question, “What’s on your mind?”

The change made Facebook more Twitter-like (Twitter asks, “What are you doing?”) and gave users more flexibility. The verb “to be” is the weakest of all weak verbs, and omitting it by default also encouraged more active statusing. And it encouraged a less solipsistic view of the world, because the writer isn’t the subject of every sentence by default.

Indeed, I looked over my friends’ Facebook status updates over the last 24 hours and found:

  • 27 formed by stand-alone sentences that ignored their user name in the sentence structure (plus 12 sentence fragments).
  • 21 status messages with a “Username is ….” construction — and seven more where the “is” was understood. (Another added a his wife as a subject to announce they “are” expecting.)
  • Eight beginning with “has…” or “had….”
  • Two beginning with “wonders….”
  • One each for “needs,” “must,” “might,” “loves,” fears,” “saw,” and, from a television critic, “DVR’d.”
  • Another was in Turkish and I don’t understand what it said.

Still, there’s something to be said for the simple, declarative sentence. And it was amusing to watch Facebook friends attempt to circumvent the “Username is” constraint by making their first name possessive (“Gregory’s day just went pear-shaped.”) or adding an appositive or other dependent clause immediately after the username-subject (“Gregory, having mowed the lawn and cleaned the garage, is reading for a nap.”) One of my favorites comes from a friend who uses his status to keep score: “Joseph 1, Tuesday 0.”

Over at Language Log, the linguistics blog of record, Eric Bakovi? has also taken note of the pronoun issues involved with updates, observing another phenomenon I’ve noticed: Originally confined to the third person, some users will shift back to the first person halfway through an update.

I started thinking about this again yesterday after the Nieman Journalism Lab pointed me to a study by the linguists at the Oxford University Press analyzing the most common words used on Twitter.

Verbs are much more common in their gerund form in Twitter than in general text. “Going”, “getting” and “watching” all appear in the top 100 words or so.

“Watching”, “trying”, “listening”, “reading” and “eating” are all in the top 100 first words, revealing just how often people use Twitter to report on whatever they are experiencing (or consuming) at the time.

Here, I have a quibble with the linguists at the Oxford University Press. Words like “watching” and “getting” can be gerunds or participles. And they seem to be used on Twitter more often as present participles (”I am watching American Idol”) than as true gerunds (”Watching American Idol is one of my favorite pastimes.”)

Regardless, it’s fascinating to watch how “statusing” (a gerund) is developing its own linguistic (not to mention journalistic) norms. We’re talking about ourselves in the third person, living in the present progressive tense and getting our point across in 140 characters or less.

People are verbing. And as Calvin once said to Hobbes….

"Verbing weirds language." “Verbing weirds language.”

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