A Twitter Grammar Question with No True Answer

Friday, April 18, 2014 - 11:06 AM

We all know the rule for "a" versus "an." If the next word starts with a vowel sound, we use a consonant. If the next word stars with a consonant sound, we use "an."

So the sentence "I read a Guardian article" is straightforward. But what about on Twitter? Any time you mention someone in a sentence, you use their handle. Which means every name on Twitter starts with @, a vowel sound. Do we count it? We tried to figure that out this morning. 


More in:

Comments [13]


I always hear "at" in my head when I see tweets, so my instinctual reaction is that "an @____" is correct. I don't know that I've ever said a twitter handle out loud, but I definitely say "at" when I'm giving out my email address. To me, it's not a silent punctuation symbol. It's one you say aloud, like &, %, and $. It seems weird to me that it would be spoken/heard in an email address but not a twitter handle.

May. 03 2014 04:34 PM

I also hear the "at" in my head as I read twitter names, but I wouldn't stumble over "a @Guardian op-ed" because twitter isn't necessarily meant to be grammatical. It's a condensed information transmission service, grammar optional.

Imagine a tweetless(!) world where you were referring to the Guardian by their domain rather than twitter handle? "Edward Snowden has a theguardian.com op-ed today..."? Or would you say "Edward Snowden has an http://theguardian.com op-ed today..."?

Instead of resolving the unresolvable, and until a new universal article is invented to replace a/an, I propose the cowardly dodge of recasting the sentence:

"Edward Snowden has an op-ed in @Guardian today about Putin and surveillance....."

For what it's worth, your own podcast suggests another grammatical inconsistency when you close with, "We tweet @TLDR..." rather than "We tweet at @TLDR...."

Apr. 24 2014 02:13 PM
John from Toronto

I'd use "an" in this case, but that's because I skip over @names and #hashtags when reading, so what I see is "Edward Snowden has an op-ed today about Putin and surveillance."

Apr. 24 2014 10:28 AM

I can see both sides of this, but for the most part, I buy that the @ is meta and not pronounced. Since no vowel sound is made you'd go with the first sound of the handle.

If this is a fuzzy area, why don't we all agree that "@" doesn't require "an" unless the handle begins with a vowel sound.

Remember folks, we only have 140 characters. That "n" could make a difference.

Apr. 24 2014 04:48 AM
Jeff Barbose from San Francisco, CA, USA

Yep. The @ is punctuation. Or in more generic terms, a delimiter. In either case, it's meta to the language contained in the statements, so it doesn't affect the language itself.

Apr. 23 2014 10:23 PM
Mr. Bee

Almost every Twitter handle is actually a person's name, so the "a" versus "an" thing only comes up in a few edge cases wherein a corporate entity is pretending to be a person.

In these few cases, it's best to treat it as a noun without the "@" sign because it's neither a stand in for a person, nor a "proper" twitter handle in itself. By that I mean you aren't actually addressing the handle, you are using it as a noun, and then putting the "@" symbol in front of it to make it function as a hashtag. The intent of the writer is to use the word as a noun, therefore ... drop the "@".

Apr. 23 2014 06:47 PM
Si Brindley

I cannot make sense of the opening paragraph. Personally I use:
- "AN" before a VOWEL sound: "an orange", "an apple".
- "A" before a CONSONANT sound: "a banana", "a pineapple".

Apr. 23 2014 06:01 PM

"We all know the rule for "a" versus "an." If the next word starts with a vowel sound, we use a consonant. If the next word stars with a consonant sound, we use "an.""

It's not even clear what you are saying as your explanation makes no sense. Don't you mean "If the next word starts with a consonant sound, we use "a". If the next word starts with a vowel sound, we use "an."" ??? Why not just quote Grammar Girl and be done with it?

Apr. 23 2014 05:33 PM

Unless the business or person's name really is "At-SoAndSoDelie" then I don't think you'd use the consonant. Would you read a Twitter post, "Hey, I love the At-TL-semi-colon-DR guys, they rock?" An exception might be @Home Network in which the punctuation is part of the name, and is (?) supposed to be read "At Home Network." Ya think?


Apr. 21 2014 05:39 PM

I feel like everyone is making this too hard. It's contextual. So if I were to say "I ate @Soandsodeli" I would pronounce the @. But in the context of "Edward Snowden has a @Guardian editorial" would also be correct. It takes a split second longer and a little more thought but the preceding article or lack thereof makes the meaning clear.

Apr. 19 2014 11:36 AM

How would you read:
"I went to @SoandsoDeli for a #sandwich."

Common practice seems to be to read right past the @ & #s...
since people didn't go to twitter to do whatever, they're just referencing them.

The twitter style guide (in context of reporting), says to say "at" but they're in the biz of promoting twitter, so of course...

Apr. 18 2014 02:10 PM
Rob Funk from Columbus, OH

Not only is the @ punctuation that isn't read within the tweet, but I'd argue that there's never a reason to pronounce it when saying a twitter handle. It's only used within a tweet for referencing someone, but it's not part of their username.

Apr. 18 2014 11:52 AM
Ryan from Brooklyn

I think the @ is punctuation. You'd pronounce it when you're saying the handle for the sake of directing podcast listeners to your Twitter feed, but not in a tweet. I think a corollary would be if you spelled your initials with periods (P.J.) -- you might say the periods out loud if you were telling someone how to spell your name, but you wouldn't (I assume) introduce yourself as "P-dot-J-dot" in conversation.

Apr. 18 2014 11:28 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Embed the TLDR podcast player

TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

Subscribe to Podcast iTunes RSS