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Verbal Energy

Let’s. Bring. This. To. A. Full. Stop.

You know those periods people leave off their text messages? The Monitor’s language columnist has an idea of where they are ending up.

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Last week in this space we considered the disappearance of periods from the end of text messages, and as a corollary, the tendency of periods, when they do appear, to be seen as expressing some level of aggression, as if to say, “I meant what I said, period.”

This week, as the astute decoder of headlines will have already inferred, we’ll consider an opposite phenomenon: periods after every single word of a line, for effect. Maybe with so many people failing to punctuate their texts, the market price of periods has tanked, so that these punctuators-for-effect have been able to scoop up periods in bulk at deep discounts.

Exhibit A: Daniel Pink’s bestselling 2012 book, “To Sell Is Human,” all about how just about everyone in the workforce is “in sales” because we’re all trying to influence or “move” others, whatever our job title. 

Mr. Pink opens his book with what journalism students will recognize as an “anecdotal lead”: He recounts a salesman’s visit to a San Francisco law office where he wants to talk a couple of otherwise preoccupied immigration lawyers into buying a fancy feather duster.

“With a magician’s flourish, Hall begins by removing from his bag what looks like a black wand. He snaps his wrist and – voilà! – out bursts a plume of dark feathers. And not just any feathers, he reveals.

“ ‘These are ... Male. Ostrich. Feathers.’ ”

The periods and the capitalization convey on the page what the utterance would have sounded like to you, had you been there – the emphases and the pauses after each word.

And a few pages later, Pink does it again. Like a filmmaker pulling the camera back from a close-up to show the larger scene, the author reveals the significance of this particular salesman: 

“[He] is a Fuller Brush salesman. And not just any Fuller Brush salesman. 

“He is ... The. Last. One.”

This use of periods after every word is an example of punctuation as stage direction, or guidance for reading aloud, as distinct from “grammatical punctuation,” which helps convey sentence structure.

Pink’s is a serious, substantive book. But it’s written in a lively, conversational style. As you read, you hear the author’s voice in your head. These periods help convey that.

Here are a couple of other examples from my recent reading: On a copy-editing e-mail list, someone erupted over some awkward prose: “[A]ny reader will be left scratching their head as to just.what.this.means.”

And here’s an online cri de coeur lamenting the collapse of customer service at a (formerly) favorite company: “When I needed help, I could call the line and get a pleasant, helpful person who genuinely wanted to assist me.

“Not. Any. More.”

As a device, this can be annoying. But it can be effective, too, if used sparingly.

And I’m so glad to have an idea of where all those unused periods from people’s text messages are ending up.

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