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Grammar bots unload on tweets

For a soft-spoken programmer from Buffalo, Nate Fanaro gets a lot of hate mail.

Every day, his Twitter queue fills up with messages telling him to die or delete his account. “I find you extremely annoying,” one caller said in a voice mail. “You make little girls cry. What’s your problem?” said another.

Fanaro is not a hacker. He doesn’t take down websites or swipe credit card numbers. Rather, the 30-year-old prankster is the creator of the Twitter grammar bot CapsCop, an automated account that finds people who tweet in all caps and, within seconds, fires a snarky correction back at them: “Give lowercase a chance,” perhaps, or “On Twitter, no one can hear you scream.”

The technology behind such bots is simple, which helps explain why so many tech-savvy grammarians have launched their own. Programmers need only write a script to search Twitter’s data and respond to certain phrases, and they’re well on their way to Twitter infamy. Some accounts reply to users directly, while others retweet the offending messages.

Teachers, parents and other curmudgeons have long blamed texting and social media for the general decline of the English language. Considering the widespread disregard for grammar in certain corners of the Internet, they could “b 4given” for thinking that kids these days can’t write. (Because while we’re sometimes talking about outright mistakes, we’re also talking about the grammar-agnostic spirit that has evolved online.)

Although Twitter may seem like a stronghold of sloppy writing and acronym-happy Internet slang, a number of vigilantes are hilariously and controversially fighting back.

Bots such as Fanaro’s ping unsuspecting Twitter users with sarcastic corrections. Anonymous copy editors such as fiercek send gentle revisions to work tweeted by writers and reporters. One of the newest accounts, a wildly popular project by Buzzfeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, seeks to publicly shame users who tweet things like “speak English your in America omg.” YourInAmerica tweeted back to that one “I think you mean ‘you’re’ in America. That’s embarrassing.”

Since its launch in late November, Kaczynski’s account – which exclusively targets the phrase “your in America” – has attracted 18,000 followers and plenty of praise from media outlets such as Latina magazine, which lauded him for launching a “grammar crusade” against “outraged nativists.” But Kaczynski treats the attention like so much comment-box blather.

“I didn’t set out with a purpose or anything,” he says. “I’m not personally offended by it. It’s just ... funny.”

“Funny” is a fair description of Twitter grammar. Many of the platform’s ungrammatical but widely used conventions – such as confused homophones (“your the man”) – are, indeed, laughable to readers schooled in what linguists call “standard English.”

But the vigilantes that froth over them can be hilarious, as well: YourorYoure, which dates back to April 2009, pings users with a simple “Wrong!” when they misuse every first-grader’s most-hated contraction. Eric Mortensen, the bot’s creator, says he made it after seeing a co-worker’s rage at an email that confused the two.

Despite the online kerfuffle, most linguists agree that neither texting nor the Internet defile the English language. Linguist Tim Stowell says there is no evidence that any form of “specialized speech” has corrupted spoken or written English. In September, researchers at Coventry University in Britain ruled that there’s no link between text-message conventions and bad spelling or grammar in other forums.