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Short and tweet

Keeping it short and tweet


I’m getting addicted to @OxfordWords on Twitter, where you can see all the latest from Oxford Dictionaries plus some great interaction with our thousands of followers. There’s a real skill to tweeting well: as many of you know, there is a 140-character limit to Twitter posts, so it can take some ingenuity to get your message across in such a limited space. Of course, @OxfordWords is one of our promotional tools, but it’s also entertaining, amusing, and interesting to read.

Appealing to the Twitterati

Just as there are various levels of writing, suitable for different contexts and situations, there are different kinds of tweets: the ones exchanged between friends are much more informal than the postings that appear on official Twitter sites such as @OxfordWords. On such corporate sites, it’s important to use accepted English grammar, punctuation, and spelling to make sure we’re understood easily (and at Oxford we must maintain our standards!), but at the same time, we want to increase our following and convey our 140-character posts in a way that engages with people and doesn’t come across as lofty or remote.

A glimpse into the Twittersphere…


hey ppl hi stephan wats up

On the other hand (as the above postings show), those who twitter in a purely personal capacity typically give themselves free rein to be creative, inventive, and allow any grammar/punctuation/spelling concerns to fly out of the window – and why not? In such informal contexts, this is entirely appropriate. Speed, fun, and directness are of the essence, and who cares about apostrophes, full stops, and the like when you’re in full flow?

Tweet nothings?

When we studied around 1.5 million tweets, collected randomly from all public tweets between January and April 2009, we found that many messages don’t contain any words at all – they just consist of a punctuation mark (such as a full stop) or smileys and other emoticons. Single words, abbreviations, and short phrases also feature strongly. We compared language usage in our tweets to general language in the Oxford English Corpus: in Twitter, we found an average of 10.7 words per sentence, roughly half the number of words per sentence in the OEC’s 2-billion-word database.

Here are around 30 of the most commonly tweeted messages.


Message Number of occurrences in 1.5 million tweet database
1. help 647
2. working 253
3. test 219
4. nothing 198
5. hi 109
6. watching tv 80
7. good morning! 73
8. lol 67
9. chillin 66
10. hello 60
11. going to bed 58
12. bored 58
13. at work 58
14. :) 54
15. joining twitter 53
16. good morning 49
17. testing 44
18. sleeping
19. ? 40
20. learning about twitter 36
21. trying to figure out twitter 33
22. going to bed 32
23. checking out twitter 30
24. tired 29
25. twittering 28
26. ok 27
27. home 27
28. signing up for twitter 26
29. relaxing 26
30. tweet tweet 24
31. morning 24
32. . 24

As you can see from the above examples, many messages consist of or begin with verbs in the progressive form: watching, trying, listening, reading, and eating are all in the top 100 first words found in tweets. As well as reinforcing the fact that much social networking is all about ‘now’ and ‘me’ and what ‘I’ am doing or about to do,  it’s my theory that twitterers are subconsciously echoing and responding to the ‘prompt’ appearing at the top of their Twitter homepage: What’s happening?

You’re tweeting my language!

got collection calls for some1 who had my phone # over 6 yrs ago.wait on the line to say so and no 1 picks up, it just hangs up… grrr…

As well as the top 30 messages, we also analysed the top 500 words used by the Twitterati. Most tweets are like a conversation between friends who all understand the same language. As in emails and texting, it’s accepted that you can convey your tone of voice by using CAPITAL LETTERS, emoticons , and exclamation marks !!!, or you can emphasize words by deliberately repeating vooooowels.

Here are some more of our findings, again comparing tweet usage to the general language in the OEC:

  • the use of symbols and abbreviations instead of words is the main way in which twitterers try to combat the limitations of 140 characters, for instance:

and becomes the plus sign +
is becomes the equals sign =
you is shortened to u
phrases are shortened to their initial letters – TBH, ROFL

  • short exclamations such as yay and wow feature strongly, as do informal adjectives such as cool and awesome
  • there’s a relatively high proportion of computer- and Internet-related terms such as Google, Facebook, blog, and app

One day, when I have enough time , I’d love to compare tweets with Facebook status updates – the differences would be illuminating, I‘m sure. But for now,



The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.