In most writing, ending a sentence with a period is just that – a way to finish a thought. But with text messages, where it’s often difficult to determine a sender’s intent, using a period at the end of a sentence can often seem less sincere, research from Binghamton University in New York has found.
In research published in November in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers recruited 126 undergraduate students to read a series of short exchanges that appears as text messages or handwritten notes.
After reading one version of experimental exchange, which each contained a statement followed by an invitation to the recipient (“Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna come?”), the students looked at two versions of a one-word affirmative response (such as “Okay, Sure, Yeah, or Yup”), one ending with a period and one that didn’t.
The students’ responses indicated that the sentences that ended with a period were rated as less sincere, says Celia Klin an associate professor of psychology at Binghamton, who led the research, in a statement. Despite the absence of context around the exchanges, she says, students were determining the meaning behind the messages based on the punctuation used by the sender.
“When speaking, people easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses, and so on,” Professor Klin said. “People obviously can’t use these mechanisms when they are texting. Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them — emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds and, according to our data, punctuation.”
In a world where people increasingly favor text message-based communication over phone calls, this “overanalyzing” of what might seem like simple exchanges can have a variety of impacts, comedy writer Sam Greenspan notes in a 2011 book.
Using a period in a simple sentence like “I’m heading out to the party now,” can vastly change its meaning, he says.
“In texting, you don’t have to end a sentence with any punctuation. It’s totally acceptable to just let it dangle. So using a period gives a certain air of finality to a statement. without the period, it feels much more open-ended – I’m heading out to the party now but who knows what I’m doing later, and you just might be part of it. Periods end things. Leaving one out keeps things open,” he writes in an excerpt published in Wired.
Mr. Greenspan assigns a range of meanings to seemingly innocuous punctuation – exclamation points are either playful or desperate, “depending on the usage,” semicolons are “trying too hard.” Commas, by contrast, notes Mental Floss, citing the writer Gertrude Stein, “are servile and ... have no life of their own.”
In a follow-up study, Klin found that sentences that end with exclamation points are often perceived as more sincere compared to messages with periods. She says that as a common vocabulary for texting and online communication continues to evolve, with, for example, text in all caps perceived as shouting, people have learned to evoke the subtleties of speech in short, written bursts.
“Punctuation is used and understood by texters to convey emotions and other social and pragmatic information. Given that people are wonderfully adept at communicating complex and nuanced information in conversations, it’s not surprising that as texting evolves, people are finding ways to convey the same types of information in their texts,” she adds.