Since I’m the old-fashioned sort of person who clings to the belief that words, whatever their length, ought to mean something, I thought I’d check whether it’s really true that “words are getting shortened” by the constraints of the Twitterverse.
So I grabbed the text of Hamlet, the text of a number of P.G. Wodehouse stories (Leave it to Jeeves, Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest, Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg, Absent Treatment, Helping Freddie, Rallying Round Old George, Doing Clarence a Bit of Good, and The Aunt and the Sluggard), and the 100 most recent tweets from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s independent student newspaper. I figured that the DP ought to count as a good representative of the Kids Today who are responsible for the alleged word-shortening trend.
I wrote a little program to adjust these texts in appropriate ways (removing the character attributions and stage directions from Hamlet, removing the Gutenberg boilerplate from P.G. Wodehouse, removing the @’s and #’s and URLs from the DP tweets, etc.), and then to count the letters in each word.
The result? The mean word length in Hamlet (in modern spelling) was 3.99 characters; in P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, the mean word length was 4.05 characters; in the DP’s tweets, the mean word length was 4.80 characters.