Gail Marie and fellow grammar police talk digital language at SXSW - McKinney

Gail Marie and fellow grammar police talk digital language at SXSW

March 14, 2013

“What’s your biggest grammatical pet peeve?” Thus began the South by Southwest panel, “Slap My Words Up: Language in the Digital World.” McKinney Content Editor Gail Marie shared the stage with Communications Manager Kristina Eastham of Digitaria; Neal Ungerleider, a reporter for Fast Company; and Sean Carton, founder and director of the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce and Culture at the University of Baltimore.

The panelists were quick and eager to reveal their biggest peeves. Classic blunders like run-on sentences, misused apostrophes and your/you’re confusion topped the list. Kristina’s biggest peeve was the misuse of “myself,” as in “please email myself.”

“I just don’t know how to do that,” she said.

The discussion covered a breadth of issues that modern marketers face, from the voice of brands to the similarities between digital writing and live speech, and whether social media is more like public or private communication.

Kristina posited that social media seems to be a third type of communication, which she called “public peer-to-peer,” so language mistakes in social can be extra tricky for marketers. You still can’t edit tweets, so what happens when your audience begins to engage with your misspelled missive? If you can catch a Twitter or Facebook typo before anyone replies, then it might be better to delete and post again. But if you’ve already gotten replies or comments on an erroneous post, then it’s probably best to acknowledge the mistake and move on. As Sean noted, “Social is ephemeral and conversational, after all.”

Neal credited the Internet for encouraging language innovation. Unlike some European countries, we don’t have a national institute of language, “which is great about English,” said Neal. Words like “Google” and even “friend” have taken on a whole new meaning in the digital age.

“Facebook has redefined what a ‘friend’ is,” said Sean. While that’s true, Gail pointed out that “friend” has been a transitive verb since the 13th century, when people started using it in place of “befriend.”

In the age of social media, people are writing more than ever, making this perhaps the most relevant panel at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive. In fact, the panel’s hashtag, #writeway, generated more than 175 tweets during the panel, the best 30 of which can be found on Storify. You can note the tweets that worry about proofreading before being sent and those that clearly don’t.


1) If you can work a word into the language, then you’ve got a successful brand.

2) In social media, a brand’s identity has become a collaboration between what the brand says about themselves and what people say about the brand.

3) In social media, brands should communicate on the level of the people they want to interact with, but they should keep in mind that the communication is public.

4) Digital communication is much more like oral communication than written communication.

5) People in the digital world are judged by the quality and conciseness of their comments.