The 140 character limit: Art or Farce?

March 29, 2013 4:42 pm

140 characters for your thoughts: welcome to twitter.

Twitter began as a system of mobile phone text messages linking up to a larger internet network. On early mobile phones, 140 characters was the maximum limit allowed for a single text; hence, twitter’s character limit was set at this figure. So surely this means the traditional language of mobile phones (txtspk) has modelled the language of twitter? I’m sure the spelling enthusiasts out there wouldn’t approve… Regardless, the number of users is steadily growing day by day. From world leaders, like Barack Obama, and popular intellectuals such as Stephen Fry, to your colleagues and friends, twitter can be used by everybody.

Twitter TrendingWhy? Twitter offers an unrivalled social networking experience. The use of hashtags (such as #manchester) allows events, news and stories to ‘trend’ instantly, so what’s going on in the real world, is happening on twitter. Once something ‘trends’ it allows other users to comment on the topic and take part, leading to the discussion of the event. However, it’s unlike Facebook or MySpace. While Facebook has fake ‘friends’, and is focused on a smaller social circle, twitter allows you to ‘follow’ the tweets of anyone you’re interested in.

But what does the 140 character limit do to the language of twitter users? Should we be worried that it’s destroying our language, or rejoicing that twitter is changing it? I sent a few tweets out this morning to find out my followers’ views and their responses were fairly unanimous. The first response summed up the situation perfectly: “I like it I think if there was no limit people would just waffle!” Users don’t want to spend time reading paragraphs when they could read the same thing in a sound bite of 140 characters. Perhaps twitter is causing people to use simpler language? If we compare the way we write today, to how we did in Shakespeare’s day, there’s clearly a major difference. Maybe in the future, our language will become even more succinct.

Over the next few minutes I received other responses from my followers. One follower made the comment that: “you don’t get pages on waffle which is irrelevant”. However, they had to concede that “it is annoying” having such a low character limit. Another one of my followers made a very similar point to an earlier response,  “it means that people don’t ramble on too much”. However, they too had to admit that it “can be frustrating at times when you can’t quite finish what you’re saying”. Interestingly, these two followers then went on to have a conversation together about the pros and cons of the character limit. Twitter truly is a site that encourages discussion and debate. But the point still stands: twitter users appear to support the 140 limit.

“I also enjoy the challenging aspect of expressing yourself in only 140 characters”. A short tweet from a close friend summarised the alternative view to the character limit excellently. The challenges that 140 characters produce makes the tweet an art form. One must select their words with precision, consider which pieces of punctuation could be omitted, and write incisively: writing a tweet is a challenge, especially when there’s a lot one wants to say.


This challenge can often become a nightmare for those who dislike poor punctuation. If we consider hashtags, for example, apostrophes are often omitted altogether and hashtags often have the first letter of each word capitalised. One of todays trending hashtags shows this clearly: #IDontLike. Do these changes show grammatical standards are slipping, or is our English language simply changing?

Every twitter user has their own opinion, so what are your views? Has Twitter created a new art form, or is this just another example of the demise of traditional English language? Tweet it. #140limit

Let’s start a debate.

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