The period, or the full stop as it is commonly called in British English, has been around since the early 1600s to signal the termination of a sentence (just as a capital letter signals the start). There are two other forms of end punctuation, the question mark and exclamation point, but as Richard Norquist notes, the period is the most popular mark because most of us state or declare our thoughts more often than we question or exclaim. It has been a perfectly serviceable, even needed mark, since as with all punctuation, it clarifies and emphasizes meaning.
For example, Norquist provide two phrases which change meaning when punctuated differently with periods:
When punctuated this way with one period, the phrase is an expression of regret: “I’m sorry you can’t come with us.” But when a period is added to create two sentences, the meaning becomes an announcement that someone cannot accompany the group: “I’m sorry. You can’t come with us.”
Despite this important and useful function, the period may be losing its domination as the most popular mark of end punctuation – at least when it comes to text messages. In the past half dozen years or so, articles have been warning, even exclaiming, against its use in texts as seen in recent proclamations, such as The NY Post’s “Periods may be coming to a full stop” or in The Washington Post’s simple “Stop. Using. Periods. Period.” Dictionary.com even labels this tiny mark “snarky periods.”
Periods, like all punctuation marks, are relatively new graphics (or mechanics). Early manuscripts, including Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon ones, generally lacked punctuation, even spaces – parchment was too precious a commodity. (There is even a branch of scholarship that looks at how the erasures and writing over of the parchment, called a palimpsest, can be used date the manuscripts, such as the Old English Beowulf.) Also, as we have many times noted in this blog, grammar and punctuation have changed over the centuries, which causes Nordquist to claim that they “would never hold up in court.” (However, in the post on the Oxford comma, the rules, in fact, can make a difference when in a Maine case known as O’Connor vs. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a serial comma became the deciding factor in a $13 million lawsuit, filed in 2014 and settled for $5 million in 2017, because the court ruled that the sentence was ambiguous.)
The new rules for periods, particularly in text messaging and social media, are indications that written language is becoming more flexible; in fact, linguist Lauren Collister, in the business publication Quartz, says the texting, often called “textspeak” or “textese,” “possesses its own set of stylistic norms.” Dictionary.com suggests that text messaging may be “the Wild West of communication” often reducing words to a single letter (R for are) and combining several words into one (like Sup? for “What’s up?”). Texts consists of fragmented writing, even an internal shorthand, “because that’s the nature of the beast” (dictionary.com).
In texts, the period now carries emotional weight
As the communication becomes briefer and more informal, the period is no longer “a mere signal for the end of a thought,” claims Kira Hall, a professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder (cpr.org). Though a text with more than one sentence might contain punctuation to indicate where the early sentences stop, the act of sending a text is a sign that the message is finished and the thought complete. This is particularly true of younger users. Indeed, there seems to be generational divide, with “older texters” and less kindly “old people” not being cool enough to understand or to practice this new format.
Ben Crair points out that while the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought in most written language, digital communications are turning it into something else. At best the period is redundant (or overly formal) for most young people; at worse the texter is using it for emphasis, an aggressive or a hostile way to shut down conversation or to show insincerity, unhappiness, anger, or frustration. The default, Hall states, is no period.
Uses of other punctuation marks increasing in text
Because a period is seen as a stop, it does not fit well with text messaging which is more of a back and forth conversation. Texters try to mimic spoken language and will use other marks and symbols to engage each other. Ellipses were used to invite the recipient to continue the conversation, while the repetition of letters or exclamation marks were used to add intensity to messages (“stopppp!!!”). Linguist Deborah Tannen notes that repeated exclamation points are also used to convey a sincere tone, as in the following text message:
JACKIE I AM SO SO SO SORRY! I thought you were behind us in the cab and then I saw you weren’t!!!!! I feel soooooooo bad! Catch another cab and ill pay for it for youuuuu (Quartz – qz.com).
That doesn’t mean the period has lost all purpose in text messaging. Now it can be used to indicate seriousness or a sense of finality. It is also used to show that the message is emphatic; as the dictionary.com states, “a period that goes in between every word really drives home what you’re trying to say: You. Must. Be. Joking.”
What most commentators note is the rate of the changes in the use of language and mechanics in text messaging and other social media. In addition, the change is promoted by younger users and on a global scale, not as in the past by just scholars and languages experts. As Hall says, the whole mass of people are contributing to language change. . . . It’s a participatory contribution. It’s not from the top down as it was in the past.”
As we’ve discussed in this blog, punctuation is a function of written language, and the rules especially apply in formal contexts, including academic, business, governmental, and other professional communications. Rules for punctuation do not apply in speech or are less important or rigid in informal contexts.
Texting and tweeting and other social media are informal ways of writing language, and though some people fear that these relaxed or contrary rules will spill over into more formal written communications, this has been shown not to be true, Collister asserts. People, even young students, recognize the need to know your audience and adjust with context-dependent styles of writing. As with all your writing, you are the one to make the decision on which format fits both your medium and your style.