Hashtags Hammer Grammar (or Not)

The hashtag is a major innovation in language. It was invented just a few years ago, to allow quick and easy categorizing of tweets. And then hashtags became an easy way to comment on the topic of a tweet, as in You had one job: A show about a detective with OCD, and that’s how they designed the box for the last season. #wellplayed Often a hashtag is a comment on a comment: I’m done with science #stopcorrectingparties2k14 Im extremely obsessive about everything I love Fall Out Boy so much #Superwholockian #soccer #softball #nickyrubio #random Destiel is my life Acknowledging its importance to linguists, the American Dialect Society chose #hashtag as its Word of the Year 2012. Two years later, the society recognized hashtags as a separate language category and promptly chose the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as Word of the Year 2014. Surveying the various uses and forms of hashtags nowadays, I was going to claim that a hashtag has no grammatical limits. It can be a complete sentence, an isolated word or two, an abbreviation, an emoticon—anything your keyboard will allow. Granted, plenty of grammatical freedom is also allowed for the part of a tweet (or text message, or other online communication) that precedes the hashtag. Still, we write and read that first part with the grammatical norms of our language in mind, even if the text only pays them a passing nod. To put it another way, our knowledge of the structure of English helps us decipher the message. And then, I was going to claim, past the hashtag no rules apply. The hashtag message can be anything from a completely grammatical sentence, as in the Word of the Year example, to just a word or abbreviation, or several, tossed  in casually. Grammar doesn’t matter. Or more precisely, grammar might matter, and then it might not. Total freedom. Anything goes. I’m not the first to make this claim. Sam Biddle, for example, said as much in a well-known Gizmodo rant: “The hashtag is conceptually out of bounds, being used by computer conformists without rules, sense, or intelligence, a like yknowwwww that now permeates the Internet outside of the tweets it was meant to corral.” But in fact, as fast as a new linguistic category is opened for colonization, not only the vocabulary but the grammar of the language enters in. That’s because language has not just vocabulary but also structure. Every language does, including those lesser-known languages that have no professional language guardians to control them. In fact, that was the situation of the English language itself for several hundred years after French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066. During those unguarded years, the language lost a lot of inflections and other grammatical niceties, but it remained rulebound all the same, ready to be monitored when English again became the language of the ruling classes. So we never escape from the guiding effects of the grammar of our language. #thatswhyevenhashtagsaregettingtamer.

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