“The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it’s started getting angry.” –Ben Crair (The New Republic)
The other day my wife and I had the following text exchange:
Me: When are you coming home?
Maria: In an hour. Can you make dinner tonight? I’m wiped!
Maria: Are you mad?
Me: No. I’ll make dinner.
The truth is that I didn’t want to make dinner. If I did I would have responded with “okay!” and not “okay.” Notice that my wife, by using two exclamation points instead of periods, expressed a tone of happy, not irritated, exhaustion and appreciation.
There is a good chance you have been on one end of a similar texting experience. If so, you realize how punctuation has become loaded with emotional baggage in digital communication. As someone who enjoys writing, and who spends a fair amount of time communicating with student parents by email and close friends by text, it has become apparent that I can no longer use periods as neutral markers to indicate a pause at the completion of a coherent thought.
The reason for this Ben Crair of The New Republic argues, is that the period is no longer the “humblest of punctuation marks.” Rather, it is “getting angry.”
“I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats, where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.”
“It’s a remarkable innovation. The period was one of the first punctuation marks to enter written language as a way to indicate a pause, back when writing was used primarily as a record of (and script for) speech. Over time, as the written word gained autonomy from the spoken word, punctuation became a way to structure a text according to its own unique hierarchy and logic. While punctuation could still be used to create or suggest the rhythms of speech, only the exclamation point and question mark indicated anything like what an orator would call “tone.” [emphasis mine].
Because the period is now marked by a particular tone, I fear being (mis-)read as sarcastic, irritated, or passive-aggressive when I use it in my texts or email. In fact, I have been told on a number of occasions to replace periods with exclamation points. Consider these two email closings.
Have a great weekend.
Have a great weekend!
Which teacher do you think really wants his students to have a great weekend? And which teacher is hoping it rains all day Saturday so that his students’ 10th birthday party gets cancelled? The answer to the first question is probably both, and the answer to the second question is probably neither. I would even wager that the facial expression on each teachers’ face is the same as they typed the email.
It does not matter because the perception of these two emails is that only one teacher really does care. One reason for this perception is that our written language is evolving alongside advances in communication technology. Consider the rise of Instant-Messaging (IM), where communication mirrors everyday speech more than it mirrors a State of the Union speech. As a result, our writing must model “a real-time, back-and-forth between two or more people” where tone is important.
Since tone that cannot be communicated by vocal inflection (because no one really uses their phone to talk to people), it is now communicated with an assortment of punctuation marks, like passive aggressive ellipses…
Nearly everyone has struggled to figure out whether or not a received message is sarcastic. So people began using exclamation points almost as sincerity markers: “I really mean the sentence I just concluded!” (This is especially true of exclamation points used in sequence: “Are you being sarcastic?” “No!!!!!”) And as problems of tone kept arising on text and instant message, people turned to other punctuation marks on their keyboards rather than inventing new ones. The question mark has similarly outgrown its traditional purpose. I notice it more and more as a way to temper straightforward statements that might otherwise seem cocky, as in “I’m pretty sure he likes me?” The ellipsis, as Slate noted, has come to serve a whole range of purposes. I often see people using it as a passive-aggressive alternative to the period’s outright hostility—an invitation to the offender to guess at his mistake and remedy it. (“No.” shuts down the conversation; “No…” allows it to continue.)
One consequence of punctuation marks carrying this extra emotional baggage is that people are avoiding them altogether. Crair cites a study by American University which looked at the texting and instant messaging habits of students:
“[Students] used sentence-final punctuation 39 percent of the time in texts and 45 percent of the time in online chats. The percentages were even lower for “transmission-final punctuation”: 29 percent for texts and 35 percent for IMs. The same is likely true of Twitter, where the 140-character limit has made most punctuation seem dispensable.”
It is understandable why people are taking this route. In the case of my text exchange with my wife, it would have been a lot easier to respond to her request that I make dinner with,
Doing so would have communicated that my mood was neutral, leaving her to interpret the response, and me free to be irritated about having to make the dinner.
John Lennard once said that “punctuation is to words as cartilage is to bone, permitting articulation and bearing stress.” There is an art to controlling the ebb and flow of written language with punctuation. It is something we are trying to teach our fourth grade students to master. It requires practice as well as a proper understanding of each punctuation mark. What this study indicates, however, is a growing belief that punctuation is dispensable. This belief is solidified by habits of digital communication which, in its attempt to mirror everyday conversation, has reduced punctuation marks to emotional states or tones.
As a teacher, how do I feel about this development?