Punctuation that maybe packs more punch

The ordinary period, which for centuries has been simply ending sentences, has lately acquired a reputation for real aggression.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Isabel Zuckoff (r.) texts on a Blackberry while waiting for a friend outside South Station.

Have I been inadvertently ticking people off?

Normally one doesn’t think of punctuation as a sign of aggression. 

But I keep running into reports that the humble period (full stop) is being used to convey messages along the lines of “Go jump in a lake,” or worse – or is at least being interpreted that way.

Here’s the logic: In ordinary prose, a writer ends a sentence with a period. But in text-speak, the channel for so much communication nowadays, especially between intimates, punctuation often (generally?) disappears. And so a period at the end of a text signals real finality – not only to the message but also potentially to the relationship.

Ben Crair, writing for New Republic a while back, set up this scenario: “You text your girlfriend: ‘I know we made a reservation for your bday tonight but wouldn’t it be more romantic if we ate in instead?’ ”

His read is that if she responds with “we could do that,” it’s OK to order a pizza. 

But suppose the response looks like this, with the period: “we could do that.” In that case, Mr. Crair posited, “Then you should probably drink a cup of coffee: You’re either going out or you’re eating Papa John’s alone.”

Those of us who continue to punctuate more or less normally, even when typing with one finger, may need to reconsider. We may be in good company, though. Crair noted a comment he had had from University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman:
“ ‘Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end.’ ”

The theory that periods equal anger seems to be rooted in the idea that communications by text lack the contextual clues provided by other channels, especially face-to-face conversation. And so any little thing, even a point at the end of a line, can be invested with emotion. As Erin Gloria Ryan wrote on Jezebel, “Thank goodness our old dotty end of sentence friend the period is here to help.”

We maybe shouldn’t be surprised at this. People have long said, or written out, “period” for emphasis. Back when parents communicated with their teens over the phone rather than by text, they said things like, “You need to come home now. Period.”

The Wall Street Journal used to play off this with an advertising tag line alluding to the distinctive punctuation mark in its nameplate: “The Wall Street Journal. Period.” The Journal was founded in 1889, when newspapers commonly punctuated their nameplates. But the paper has hung onto its period long after other papers dropped theirs.

I’m likely to hang on to my own habit of punctuating texts. But I plan to keep a sharper eye out for what others do, and modify my practice if that seems appropriate. After all, my goal is to punctuate my messages, not to puncture anyone’s ego.

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