Twitter boss Jack Dorsey recently published a statement to his 4.2m followers about how his company is going to grow up and become responsible. But it seemed to us so badly written as to become almost meaningless. So we sent it to grammarian John Seely for analysis. Turns out it is indeed gobbledegook, to use the technical term. Bad grammar is often a sign of muddy thinking or a deliberate attempt to mislead, and we submit that Jack’s Tweet is either one or both of those.We’ll be nominating Mr Dorsey – net worth $2.1 billion – for the Idler’s Bad Grammar Award 2018, set up to expose examples of horrendous bullshit from corporations and governments and others who should know better. As William Cobbett said, “tyranny has no enemy so formidable as the pen”, and it behooves us all to make a study of words in order to detect when the authorities are attempting to bamboozle us.
Below is the offending Tweet.
Here is John Seely’s reply.
The sentence can be broken down into three, with a main clause of the pattern subject+verb+object, followed by two extended phrases:
- We’re committing Twitter
a) to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation,
b) to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.
It starts off OK, and the first bit that “we” are “committing Twitter to” is grammatical, although I don’t think he really needs “collective”, because “public conversation” can hardly be anything other than “collective”. But it’s in 1b that the sentence goes off the rails.
(a) and (b) are grammatically co-ordinated, because they both depend on ‘We’re committing Twitter…’ If they were correctly co-ordinated, it would be possible to delete either and the sentence would still be grammatically sound. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. If you delete (a), the whole thing falls down:
We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.
We’re committing Twitter to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.
If you simplify it a bit, it’s like saying, ‘I’m committing myself to hold myself publicly accountable towards progress.’ Which is gobbledygook. And anyway, how does someone hold themself ‘publicly accountable towards progress’? What does it mean? ‘Toward’ is wrong, of course. It should be replaced by ‘for’.
If he had thought, he could have written the same high-minded tosh as two grammatically correct sentences:
We’re committing Twitter to help increase the health, openness, and civility of public conversation. We will hold ourselves publicly accountable for the progress we make.
However, as an Oxford graduate, I’m delighted to see that he favours the use of the ‘Oxford comma’ after openness!
John Seely has taught and lectured in many different countries, specialising in English language and communication skills. His publications include The Oxford Guide to Effective Writing and Speaking and The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation.