Twitter usage note: “at” and @.

March 22nd, 2014

So here’s a little Twitter usage peeve of mine. It has to do with the way some people mistakenly drop the word “at” in tweets when it would precede the @ sign.

If you don’t use Twitter, feel free to skip this one; if you do use Twitter, take a look and tell me what you think. I run into this issue all the time, and it consistently wrong-foots me as a reader.

Setup

Twitter uses the @ sign to prefix a username (also called a “handle”); for example, my username is @Twalk. You can start a tweet with a username, which means that you’re directing a public tweet at a specific user, like this:

@johndoe Great running into you & your family last night at the park. We should get a cup of coffee soon!

Because of a quirk in the way Twitter treats public replies, the only people who will see that tweet in their Twitter streams are Twitter users who follow me AND follow @johndoe.

But let’s say I want to publicize something my friend is doing. If I want to get around that quirk in Twitter, I can reference him somewhere else in the tweet, like this:

Everybody check out the new site @johndoe just launched — really cool! [link to site]

Experienced Twitter users drop in handles all the time when they want to call attention to another Twitter account, whether that’s a person, a business, an event, or whatever. So you might see this:

Great to run into @johndoe and @janedoe at the dog park last night. Their kids have grown up *fast*.

The problem arises when the tweeter mistakenly thinks that the @ at the beginning of a Twitter handle can do double duty as the word “at” in the syntax of the sentence:

Great to have dinner @johndoe and @janedoe’s place last night. It had been too long!

How do you read that message? I mean, read it out loud — what’s your voiceover?

Argument

Maybe you differ from me, which is fine. But for me the voiceover is this:

“Great to have dinner John Doe and Jane Doe’s place last night. It had been too long!”

Here’s why: in MANY, MANY cases, the “@” connected to a handle goes entirely un-noted. When I run into Twitter friends, for example at South by Southwest, they DON’T say, “Hey, it’s at-T-walk!” They just don’t. They say, “Hey, it’s T-walk!” When I read a tweet like the second example above, I don’t read it as “Everybody check out the new site at-John-Doe just launched…” but as “Everybody check out the new site John Doe just launched…”

Short version: the @ becomes a visual marker that indicates you’re referencing a Twitter entity — not a part of the English syntax of the sentence.

More good examples:

  • I’m glad @WholeFoods labels GMOs in food — but I think they shouldn’t even carry those products.
  • If you need serious UX help, @AnnettePriest is the best. That’s just a fact.
  • Can’t wait for @SXSW this year.

In each of these cases, the @ makes perfect sense from the standpoint of Twitter functionality: Whole Foods, my friend Annette, and anyone looking for South by Southwest-oriented tweets will see these tweets. And in each of these cases, you DON’T pronounce the @. It has no function in the sentence in terms of English syntax. Which is why it wrong-foots me when I come across bad examples like these:

  • I could happily spend my entire Saturday morning @WholeFoods.
  • Joining a few friends @AnnettePriest’s place for dinner. Related: Annette is an amazing cook.
  • I saw so many old friends @SXSW this year — like a family reunion!

In these tweets, the @ is trying to do double duty . . . and it fails. I have to reread it, even if only for half a second, to make sense of it.

The Moral of the Story

Putting “at” in front of “@” in a tweet is not redundant when English syntax calls for it. On the contrary, it keeps your reader from stumbling across your words.

Yes, Twitter is a conversational medium, and there’s no need to be a great stickler for the Queen’s English or MLA style there. But you DO want to be understood . . . and omitting that crucial “at” when it’s needed makes you a little harder to understand.

So please don’t drop it.

~

[Addendum a couple of hours later: the landscape may change if Twitter does away with @ replies altogether -- which, in my view, would be a mistake.\]

One Response to “Twitter usage note: “at” and @.”

  1. Natanya Says:

    100% agree. I find myself forgetting sometimes because the narrative in my head pronounces @ as “at” or – honestly – I’m running out of characters. But yes, yes, yes!

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