Tweeting prepositions



Toward the end of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week, the host, Jacob Goldstein, said: “You can tweet at us at ‘planetmoney.’ You can tweet at me at ‘jacobgoldstein.’”

In March, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addressed the U.S. Cyber Command task force and said (I quote from a transcript posted on Lexis-Nexis), “If you do nothing else and get nothing else out of this encounter today, I want you to do one thing, which is to go home tonight or make a call or tweet at your family, or do whatever you people do … (LAUGHTER) … but in whatever medium you use, please tell them that you were thanked today by the leadership of the department, and through us, the entire country, for what you do.”

President Obama, in April 2014 remarks on the minimum wage, said, “Tell [members of Congress] it’s time for $10.10. You can tweet at them. Use hashtag #1010Means.”

The noteworthy thing (to me) about those quotes is the expression tweet at. I’ve been noticing it more and more over the past few months as an alternative and challenge to the traditional and simpler tweet, as in “Tweet me.” At is, of course, a preposition, and its attachment to this transitive verb is in keeping with other recent examples of what I’ve called “preposition creep”:

  • Excited for supplanting excited about.
  • Obsessed with supplanting obsessed by.
  • Enamored with supplanting enamored of.
  • Bored of challenging bored by.

Twitter launched in July 2006 and within months, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, tweet was being used as a noun meaning a Twitter posting, as an intransitive verb (“I love to tweet”), and as a transitive verb. Its first citation of the last is a December 2006 tweet: “Got the new phone, so you can tweet me again, you sick bastards!”

The prepositionless form has a strong pedigree, following the model of such verbs as (in technological order) tell, write, wire, phone, email, text, and IM. Yet people found a need to stick an at in there. The earliest use I’ve been able to find is in a 2010 Los Angeles Times article. The usage took a while to gather steam. In a 2012 State Department press conference conducted by Victoria Nuland, a reporter said that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “wants people to tweet at Barack Obama to have him go to the Rio Plus 20 Summit in June.”

MS. NULAND: … I have not seen Ban Ki-moon’s tweets, but I think it’s interesting.

Q: He tweets at people.

MS. NULAND: He tweets at people. (Laughter.) Tweets at people. (Chuckles.) I barely know how to do that.

Tweet at is hardly a juggernaut: Searching Google News for the past week, tweet at me yields four hits compared with 64 for tweet me. But it’s gaining ground and will continue to do so, I predict, because it is apt. Tell, write, etc., don’t need or take an at because they describe direct person-to-person communication. Twitter doesn’t work that way. When you include someone’s handle (@byagoda, or @potus) in your tweet, you really don’t know if the person will get it or read it. What you’re doing, as Monty Python would put it, is sending your message in their general direction. The at also suggests a kinship with such verbs as yell at, shout at, scream at, and throw stuff at — also apt, given the state of discourse on Twitter.

If you agree, disagree, or otherwise want to weigh in, tweet at me: @byagoda