NYT Bans The Word Tweet “Outside Of Ornithological Contexts”

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Too funny. According to The Awl, The New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett yesterday reportedly sent out a memo (below) to NYT writers asking them to severely cut down on the use of the word ‘tweet’ outside of “ornithological contexts”.

Corbett has been overseeing language issues for the paper’s newsroom since September 2009, and was previously in charge of revisions in the newsroom’s style manual as deputy news editor.

Update: Dave Itzkoff, who blogs for the Times, tweets that the report is indeed not true. Which makes it a perfect satirical piece worth sharing anyway. Update 2: Another New York Times staffer tells us privately that the memo is “100% real” and Itzkoff clarifies that it is not the memo’s existence he was denying, but that some journalists inside the NYT recognize “tweet” as a word and there is an internal debate ongoing about it.

Basically, Corbett supposedly argues that the word ‘tweet’ is silly and – at least not yet – standard English, and that many people, particularly those not on Twitter, have no idea what the word means. But NYT writers have apparently used the word as noun or a verb 18 times in articles in the past month, across various sections, he adds.

Yes, it’s kind of amusing that someone would actually keep count of that sort of thing, but it’s not that bad a point, in my opinion. I mean, I assume it’s fine for TechCrunch to regularly use the word tweet without having to wonder if our readers will grasp what we’re trying to say, but it might indeed be harder for your average Times reader.

Anyway, here’s the full memo (which we’ve independently obtained a copy of ourselves):

How About “Chirp”?

Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.

Of course, new technology terms sprout and spread faster than ever. And we don’t want to seem paleolithic. But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.

One test is to ask yourself whether people outside of a target group regularly employ the terms in question. Many people use Twitter, but many don’t; my guess is that few in the latter group routinely refer to “tweets” or “tweeting.” Someday, “tweet” may be as common as “e-mail.” Or another service may elbow Twitter aside next year, and “tweet” may fade into oblivion. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the word itself seems so inherently silly.)

“Tweet” may be acceptable occasionally for special effect. But let’s look for deft, English alternatives: use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use “say” or “write.”

Don’t forget to rechirp this post.

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