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Take a look at the use of the underlined verb in this recent story about an incident of boorish locker-room behavior toward a female reporter:

In the locker room, she was subjected to whistles and catcalls, eventually tweeting that she was avoiding eye contact with players.

Tweet is an invented verb, so it provides an interesting little experiment in syntactic change. It takes content clauses with the subordinator that, as the above example shows. Can it take a direct object plus content clause, like tell in She told him that she was leaving? Apparently so: if you Google for tweeted him that she, you get about 3,400 Google hits.

What about an optional to Preposition Phrase, like say in She said to him that she was leaving? That too, and perhaps more commonly: for both tweeted to his fans that… and tweeted to her fans that…, you get more than 7,000 hits. And what of ditransitive use (with two object noun phrases), like tell in She told him the news? That seems to be developing as well: there are 13,400 hits for tweeted him the, some of which are spurious (in she just tweeted him the other day the noun phrase is a time modifier, not a second object), but many of which are genuine (in I tweeted him the link to my post we have two objects).

You see the point? Twitter merely coined a verb meaning "send a message via Twitter", but they didn't specify what linguists call its subcategorization possibilities. They added the verb to the dictionary, but they didn't specify its grammar. The verb tweet is gradually developing its own syntax according to what it means and what its users regard as its combinatory possibilities. That is a really interesting, though unintended, large-scale natural experiment in how syntactic change works. And it is running right now, every minute of every day.

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53 Comments »

  1. Szwagier said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    Intriguing observation. I just twote that.

  2. Ben C said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    I think the real tell will be if the candy makers produce Valentine's conversation hearts that say "Tweet Me" or not. :)

  3. Evan Harper said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    …and in a decade or two, we'll get to read crotchety screeds about how these kids today misuse the word "tweet" because English standards are deteriorating and the schools don't teach properly any more.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    What I find interesting is that the neologism seems to be acquiring all the possible syntactic structure, presumably from any verb that is roughly analogous. So while "say" permits the prepositional structure but not the ditransitive (*she said him was leaving), and "tell" does the reverse, "tweet" has it both ways.

    I suspect the newness has a lot to do with it, and also the fact that it's been adopted everywhere by everyone. The writer who combines "tweet" with a prep may not like the sound of the ditransitive, and vice versa. But given a community with no boundaries, both are eventually generated and are likely to survive.

    Eventually, of course, prescriptivists will settle on one or the other, arguments will ensue, and Internet will be (even more) awash in turmoil and bloodshed.

  5. John Lawler said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    It seems to be acquiring most of the properties of tell, as set forth in §37.2 of Beth Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations. Interestingly, although it does indicate a manner of speaking, it does not fit in with §37.3, "Verbs of Manner of Speaking", which includes the verbs characterized by Arnold Zwicky in his famous 1971 article as "Snap, cackle, and pipe up".

  6. Peter said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: “tell” can’t take the prepositional structure? Tell that to the marines!

  7. cameron said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    It's an interesting sequence. The verb twitter becomes the proper noun Twitter, the name of the website. Then we have tweet. Which came first, tweet the noun, to refer to a message broadcast via Twitter, or tweet the verb, to denote an instance of using Twitter to boradcast a message? In either case, either the noun immediately begat the verb, or vice versa. Of course tweet the verb isn't really necessary, because one could just use the verb twitter.

  8. Chandra said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    I find the construction "she tweeted him that" odd, but mainly because in my (admittedly limited) understanding of Twitter, tweets are sort of generally broadcast out to all of one's followers, rather than directed at specific individuals, no?

    On the subject of interesting neo-verbisms, a friend's status update on Facebook the other day stated that she had "google-imaged" something. That was a first for me, but I had no difficulty understanding what she meant.

  9. Dan T. said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Tweets are publicly visible to anybody who manages to find them, and go directly to the limited subset of Twitter users who directly follow the person who tweeted them, but they can be more specifically directed at one user by preceding them with @[username], in which case that user would see them even if he/she is not a follower, and would know it's aimed specifically at them (even though others can see it too).

  10. Helmut said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    @Chandra

    Using the @ symbol combined with someone's username makes the tweet show up on that user's page, so it's still broadcast to followers, but also has something like a Attn: username for those not already subscribed.

    Even without the @, it's comparable to telling someone something by shouting in a crowded cafe. Everyone can hear it, but it can be directed at a person in particular.

    I think the verb "to facebook" is comparatively more settled. "I facebooked him" can mean I contacted him, but "I facebooked it to him" only has 4 hits on Google.

  11. tablogloid said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Maybe you can argue whether "tweet" is "an invented verb" or not. If it is, it was definitely invented by little birdies. That's what they do.

  12. Mark F. said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    John Lawler — I'm not sure it indicates a manner of speaking in the same way that "snap" and "cackle" do. Given the example verbs you gave, I take "manner of speaking" to be a matter of style — pacing, volume, and associated gestures and expression. "Tweet" specifies the communication channel, and is more analogous to the verb "to radio".

  13. tpr said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    I've also seen 'twit' used a few times to mean someone who uses Twitter, usually in a derogatory sense in keeping with the traditional meaning. It's all too tempting though, isn't it? Alas, I have recently become one.

  14. Ian Preston said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    It seems to share a syntax with text. You can have examples of all the mentioned types: "she texted him that she…", "he texted to his wife that…" and "he texted him the news." You can also have either without direct object or content clause. In both cases the verb also serves as associated noun.

  15. @wassabeee said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    Geoff

    Your interesting post provoked some interesting comments.

    However, for me the most fascinating aspect of tweetish is this sort of communication:

    #nigella #nowwatching *simpers*

    This is the complete tweet. It tells you what the twitterer is watching on the TV, and shows you exactly how she feels about Nigella Lawson.

    A complete witty story in much less than 140 characters, activating the left brain and the right brain.

    What is the future for the #EnglishLanguage? *furrows brow*

  16. John Lawler said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    Radio is in §37.4 "Verbs of Instrument of Communication":
      cable e-mail fax modem netmail phone radio relay satellite sign
      semaphore signal telecast telegraph telephone telex wire wireless

    Some example sentences (with cable, starred and numbered as in Levin 1993):

      (570) Heather cabled the news.
      (571) Heather cabled Sara.
      (572)a Heather cabled the news to Sara
      (572)b Heather cabled Sara the news.
      (573) *Heather cabled to Sara.
      (574) *Heather cabled the news at Sara.
      (575) Heather cabled Sara about the situation.
      (576)a Heather cabled (Sara) that the party would be tonight.
      (576)b Heather cabled (Sara) when to send the package.
      (576)c Heather cabled (Sara) to come.

      (578) Heather cabled for Sara to come.

  17. Mark said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    I'm fascinated by "mistweeted". It is an obvious pun but it should be instructional when people start back-forming from it.

    She mistweets all the time.
    Oh, that was totally a mistweet.
    He mistweets all his girlfriends?
    Mistweeting is rampant on campus.

    etc.

  18. Rubrick said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I wonder if an irregular past tense of "twat" will take hold. Browning might appreciate that.

  19. Stacia said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    Is the same thing happening in other languages? Are Spanish and Arabic using the English conjugation?

  20. Brian said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    "Twote" was already put forth by a popular humorous video a couple of years ago. I'd expect that one to take hold if anything does.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Speaking of irregular past tenses, has this forum discussed the past tense and past participle of text?

    Assiduous search of a well-known corpus:

    "he text me yesterday": 103,000
    "he texted me yesterday": 5,030

    "she text me yesterday": 10,300
    "she texted me yesterday": 27,500

    Hm. Either something really remarkable is going on, or Google numbers are being even less reliable than usual.

  22. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    I just tried Google UK and got:
    2,050
    4,750
    1,300
    27,800

    Hmm.

  23. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    The correct figures are:
    98
    144
    31
    118

    That's better. I was Google was.

  24. Will said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    Tangentially related, this reminds of the t-shirt with the slogan: "Let's go back to Myspace and you can Twitter all over my Facebook".

    While this is obviously in jest, I decided to check if the verb tweet can actually adopt a frame like that. Googling for "tweeted all over", a few of the results are joke references to the above slogan, but most of them seem to be serious results like:

    "Sure it's been tweeted all over, but…"
    "Then it was re-tweeted all over the place"
    "They have had over 1500 views in less than 24 hours and it is being re-tweeted all over the twitterverse"
    "Your one tweet could be tweeted all over the world if other Twitter users find it useful or intereseting!"

    The object takes many forms: "all over", "the internet", "the world", "the twitterverse", even "Twitter" in "It got re-tweeted all over Twitter", and some others.

    My favorite result though combines the joke form with the serious form: "I just tweeted all over my phone".

  25. Will said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    Eh, typo when I was listing objects above — that "all over" starting the list off should have read "the place".

  26. zoetrope said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    Haven't done a thorough web search, but I found verbs in at least Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

    In Italian, the verb appears to be 'twittare' and can be followed by a content clause with subordinator 'che' as in the following example:

    - "…ha twittato che gli è arrivata la birra del Grado Plato"

    though even 'twittato che' seems pretty rare (I only got about 400 hits and a fair number of those had a comma before the 'che' or other such problems).

    'twittare' also occurs as an intransitive verb:
    - "Per il momento ho twittato abbastanza.."

    and taking a direct object:
    - "Tutti coloro che seguono Gameloft_Italy e hanno twittato la frase sopra indicata parteciperanno all’estrazione…"

    Portuguese seems to follow a similar pattern with the verb 'twittar' – again about 400 results for 'twittado que', and Spanish has the verb 'twittear'. For 'twitteado que' I get about 1,760 results. Example:
    - "…habia twitteado que por la noche estaría en Rock in Rio y a ninguno nos extraño."

    Some of the hits I got came up in multiple languages, and I think they may have been translations of news items originally in English. Some of them even had quotes around the verb 'twittato' or 'twitteado' or whatever it was, which makes me even more suspicious that they were translations of an original English 'tweeted'. However, other instances came from comments, blog entries, etc. so even if English was the source for the relative usage, it seems this usage has spread at least a bit beyond translated texts.

    As for prepositional phrases, those also seem possible. Examples from Spanish and Italian:
    - "Te lo he twitteado a ver si salen muchos"
    - "Nello stesso mese Ryan Seacrest… ha twittato a oltre tre milioni di follower…"

  27. Helmut said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    That is really odd for a he/she difference.

    As for the past participle, I think the the final t is dropped in text pretty regularly, so the PP becomes "texed." That may be spelled text, but I think that's what going on verbally, rather than saying the awkward texted.

    On a tangent of a tangent, are there any verbs in English that end in -xt that have the PP -xted?

  28. John Cowan said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    Helmut: "I nexted along the hyperlinks"?

  29. Nanani said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    The Japanese incarnation of Twitter started out using 呟く (tsubuyaku>/i>, the thing little birds do) in the place of tweet , but then later changed it to ツイート (tweet, katakana'd).
    Like any loan verb, it is conjugated with -suru.

    Some Twitter clients may still use 呟く, I haven't checked.

    Other services implementing a twitter-like service usually use the kanji version, possibly owing to with trademark issues.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    @Adrian: Okay, okay. I went to the end with "in-fucking-croyable", but I didn't do it with these comparisons because the big numbers intimidated me. Silly me.

    "he text me yesterday": 115
    "he texted me yesterday": 118

    "she text me yesterday": 44
    "she texted me yesterday": 104

    Let's try another.

    "he said it fitted me": 10
    "he said it fit me": 29

    "she said it fit me": 29
    "she said it fitted me": 10

    The reverse pattern, but the texted examples seem to be mostly people wondering what their boyfriends or girlfriends meant by something, and the fitted ones aren't so romantic or anxious. And the samples are very small, and and and…

    @Helmut: A friend of mine uses text for present, past, and past participle (except when he has a prescriptive girlfriend), and as far as I can tell, to my untrained ear. Speaking of small samples.

  31. Adrian Petrescu said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    I'm curious about what the non-invented verbs are. I hadn't realized there was a natural source of them.

  32. Ian Preston said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    @ Helmut, John Cowan:

    Being nexted is what happens to the unprepossessing on Chatroulette.

  33. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 3:16 am

    @Zoetrope: the adapted orthography "tuitear" is perhaps even more common in Spanish, and enjoys some usage even in the formal media, as in the following newspaper headlines:

    Carlos Raffo tuiteó imagen de su cédula de votación y caso sería investigado por JNE (Peru)
    Reportero cautivo tuiteó de celular de captores (Mexico, with 'scare italics' for the verb)
    Japonés que tuiteó mensaje récord se asustó con su repentina fama (Chile)

  34. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 3:18 am

    @Adrian Petrescu: I believe the customary means of acquisition are borrowing or inheritance, which are likely to carry over some syntactic patterning, while ex nihilo invention gives user greater freedom to determine it

  35. Army1987 said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    As for "text him yesterday", see http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2009/10/texting.html: essentially Wells says people do that because the underlying representation of the present has become /teks/ without a final /t/, though some pointed out in the comment that people saying /teksIz/ for the 3rd person present are much fewer.

  36. zoetrope said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 5:30 am

    @Alon: Interesting – for "tuiteado que" I only got about 100 results. "tuiteó que" gives 2,080 while "twitteó que" gives 10,500. Maybe just quirks of Google search?

  37. George said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    Stacia: "Are Spanish and Arabic using the English conjugation?"

    I am not plugged into the world of Twitter or Arabic usage of it, and a quick Google search was not particularly helpful. I found some references to istikhdaam al-twitter 'using the-twitter,' but no verbs for tweeting.

    My hunch is that Arabic speakers will come much more slowly to deriving a verb from the noun as this is not as productive in Arabic as English. As an example, 'tilifoon' has been borrowed as a noun for some time and is widely used (over the objections of linguistic jihadists). But, it is not commonly used as a verb.

    Also, I would expect that the plural of Twitter will be twitter-aat (fem. plural).

  38. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    FWIW at this late date, when I wrote (a bit hastily) that "tell" does not take the prep structure, I meant the one actually cited in Geoff's post: "tweeted to his fans that" – as in the following:

    I said to John that it was raining.
    *I told to John that it was raining.

    Tweet seems to have appropriated this structure from "say" and other structures from "tell."

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    @Army1987: Thanks. Wells's post led me to a column by our own Ben Zimmer. I'm with those who say that text her yesterday is formed by analogy with cut, hit, etc.

    But I still wonder whether there's a gender difference. Someone with access to a corpus with the speaker's gender tagged might be able to find something. I also wonder whether there's a gender difference for fit and fitted, dove and dived, etc. (at least in American English).

  40. jtradke said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    @zoetrope – I noticed #twitteandoenlos90s ("tweeting in the '90s", I believe) was a trending hashtag after one of my friends used it.

  41. Andrew Wolfe said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    I wonder if Adele Goldberg has caught wind of this post. It'd make interesting fodder for a presentation on Construction Grammar.

  42. James Wilson said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    "Coinage" means it's a new word, and your post also claims they "invented" it, but "tweet" as a verb is in no way new. The "send a Twitter message" meaning is just an extension of the older "tweet", "to make a tweeting noise. Their logo is even a bird to make sure you don't miss the connection.

    James

  43. maidhc said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    The Twitter people decided that a single message would be called a tweet. In the sense of sending a Twitter message, it's a coined term. I suppose it is analogous to a tweet being a single bird sound and a twitter being a collection of them.

    If they had set up the service Twitter and left it at that, people probably would say "I twittered him" like they say "I facebooked him" or "I e-mailed him".

    "I e-mailed him" is interesting because "I e-mailed him the file" is like "I mailed him the package" but "I e-mailed him" (As in "How did he find out about that? I e-mailed him") is not like "I mailed him".

  44. xah lee said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 5:11 am

    hum… was wondering if lang log has blogged bout reddit, if so, i haven't reddit. (just did a search thru the search box here, didn't seem to find it.)

    a quick google found me:

    “i reddit everything.”
    “how do i reddit?”
    “i.reddit.com”
    “I Reddit on Facebook, ya Digg?”
    “i reddit too – good job.”
    “Where Have I Reddit Before?!”
    “i reddit already.”
    “ I reddit again and again.”
    “I Reddit online last night”
    “I am a Digger before I Reddit”
    “Been giggling about this since I reddit: http://www.reddit.com/…”
    “But I reddit'ed something for the first time the other day and it spiked traffic so hard that …”
    “ I reddit this, stumbled, …”
    “Also, I reddit most of the time when i'm bored”

    few meanings are apparent: i've read it; i've submitted to reddit.com; i've read it on reddit.

    am thinking, tweeted might be twitted or twittered. Need a google fight here.

    so… these days i might have stumbled upon a article, reddit, tweeted/twitted/twittered it, buzzed, get slash dotted, im'd, or skyped.

    …though, i have a feeling that none of these would stick for good. Personally, i really find “read” to be a problem, and am at a lost how i should fix it with my brazen english-rectification style. “Readed” looks good in form but sounds awful — too much like “re-did”. While “red” is worse a solution, cause of the homograph and homophone, besides carrying on the illogicality.

    my other personal problem is “women”…

  45. ljconrad said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question.

  46. Mark Liberman said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    Let's not forget the joke-irregular past participle twitten.

  47. Mark Allen said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    I recall an interview with one of the Twitter founders in which he grudgingly accepted the verb "tweet." He preferred "to Twitter." So that causes me to wonder if it's correct that "Twitter … coined a verb." I suspect the founders dreamed of their company being verbed but were disappointed that the existing verb "twitter" caught on instead.

  48. Mark Allen said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    Correction to my comment: "I suspect the founders dreamed of their company being verbed but were disappointed that the existing verb "tweet" caught on instead."

    There, now it makes sense.

  49. Daphné Kerremans said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    Interesting topic.
    I'm currently investigating neologisms from a cognitive linguistic perspective, i.e. following their conventionalization and entrenchment process, and I have observed a similar tendency. Neologs seem to develop distinctive lexico-syntactic patterns from the very beginning. I just did a case study for "detweet", which is rather ambiguous when its meaning is concerned. Four different meanings can be distinguished and all of them are firmly embedded in specific syntactic patterns. When it is being used as "to log off from Twitter" for instance, it almost always occurs as the present participle or as the infinitive after "have to". Speakers seem to generalize quite a lot when using new words and transfer patterns from already entrenched concepts ("I'm signing off now") quickly. (It nevertheless feels rather strange to use the progressive here though, as it is merely pushing a button)

  50. Gaston said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    In Dutch, verbs describing new communication technologies tend to develop a compound with af (cognate of 'off'), with the meaning 'cancel by…' They're based, I think, on afzeggen (literally 'say off'), which simply means 'cancel' or 'cancel an appointment with so and so.' Hence, afbellen means 'cancel by phone', afmailen is 'cancel by mail'. I can't remember coming across af-sms'en or affaxen, but they would be intuitively obvious and hardly remarkable. I am on the look-out now to see if aftweeten or, more likely, aftwitteren actually emerge in spontaneous speech or, more likely, tweets. No luck yet, but again: the language certainly allows such formations.
    And on a note of curiosity: are there any radio shows yet in the English speaking world that invite listeners to tweet in? I would expect that neologism.

  51. Robert said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    For tweet, I prefer an ablaut like sing-sang-sung, which means that the past tense would be twat.

  52. Will Fitzgerald said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    Following up on John Lawler's post, I've looked at data from Twitter, and this suggest that tweet is a radio-class verb, as John suggests. See my post at:

    http://willwhim.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/tweet-is-a-radio-verb/

  53. bfgray said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @Will: the 'all over' phrases you found aren't objects: note that in all your examples, the verb 'tweet' is passive. 'All over Twitter/the place/…' would be… what? modifiers of place?

    Re: an irregular past tense form for 'tweet', I've seen and heard 'twote' and the (usually derogatory) vulgar 'twat' a fair bit, and also 'twit' (as past tense, not just as the person tweeting, as @tpr points out), but I can't think of any other English verb following a similar pattern (/i:/ -> /I/).

    I haven't seen anyone suggesting 'twet', though – on analogy with 'meet' -> 'met'…

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