Periods: The End of the Line?
Few punctuation marks require less explanation than the period. As English’s default symbol of final punctuation, it tends to cause far fewer linguistic headaches than commas, semicolons or em-dashes. The fact that periods mark the end of a sentence is easy to grasp and has rarely been the subject of debate.
Straightforward and uncontroversial though they are, nowadays, people end their sentences with periods a little less often than they used to. This slight decline coincides with the advent of the internet, texting and instant messaging platforms. With these new means of communication, for the first time, users could exchange short, real-time messages, often no longer than a single sentence. Naturally, single-sentence messages don’t need to be broken up by periods, and when more than one sentence is involved, the messages themselves are still clearly delimited by a line break, as well as the borders of a text box or bubble. The absence of final periods is no barrier to comprehension, and so it’s understandable that in an informal context such as this, people might not bother with them.
Why Point Out the Period?
Other features of standard written language such as initial capital letters, apostrophes and uniform spelling could also be neglected in the context described above (and they often are) with little detriment to understanding. However, it has been widely observed that the final period is especially vulnerable. Let’s look at some of the possible reasons for this.
Firstly, messages sent over these platforms are often subject to automatic correction, which typically includes capitalization of initial letters and uniformization of spelling, including the addition of apostrophes where appropriate. In fact, as linguist Gretchen McCulloch1 points out, this feature has probably made spelling more uniform overall: when a word has more than one valid spelling variant, basic autocorrect features will simply pick one and enforce it throughout the text (although more advanced writing tools such as Antidote offer users more flexibility in this regard). When it comes to periods, however, autocorrect has a harder job. Users typically hit “send” immediately after typing the final word of the message, meaning that it gets dispatched before that final correction can be made.
So, can the missing period be explained by the fact that, unlike other oversights, our devices can’t fix them for us? Not quite. For some people, omitting final periods is more than a simple matter of neglect: they do it deliberately. To try to understand why, let’s look at the following exchange:
Person 1: Sorry for the delay. I’ll be there soon
Person 2: OK.
Can we make any assumptions about how Person 2 feels by reading this? Technically, we cannot. The message’s brief content gives no indication of whether they forgive Person 1 for being late. However, for some, the period might be evidence to the contrary.
Unlike its cheerful cousin the exclamation mark, which has always been popular in digital communication, the period is strictly neutral when it comes to mood. In the absence of other social cues typically present in spoken conversation, this explicit neutrality may be interpreted as stuffy, insincere, or even aggressive. A 2015 study2 by researchers at Binghamton University seemed to confirm this perception, at least among undergraduate students: participants rated one-word responses in sample text exchanges as less sincere when they ended with a period, in comparison with those that ended with no final punctuation. The fact that the period doesn’t communicate any particular mood can also accentuate the one thing it does convey: finality. In other words, as linguist Mark Liberman puts it3, “This is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.”
Does this mean that we’re in the midst of a punctuation revolution in which, unless we want to express displeasure or shut the conversation down, line breaks cancel out periods in short messages? Recent trends might reflect this, and it would certainly suit those who interpret these periods negatively (as well as those who rely heavily on autocorrect). But such a change is unlikely to gain universal acceptance any time soon. Media articles that talk about it tend to be accompanied by angry or incredulous comments from readers. And there’s no sign of periods being dropped in other contexts: they will remain one of the fundamental tools of standard English punctuation for the foreseeable future.
So, periods are undoubtedly here to stay in most written formats, and anyone aiming to adhere to standard English punctuation should certainly add them to the end of every sentence. Having said that, speakers frequently deviate from standard rules for a number of reasons, particularly in contexts which require less formality. In these cases, omitting the final period may be a perfectly acceptable way of softening the tone of a message. In all cases, however, careful writers should remain aware of periods in short messages. In the early days of instant messaging, those text bubbles were usually reserved for friends and informal acquaintances. Now, they are just as likely to be directed at colleagues, clients, and others for whom an informal register may not be appropriate.
Danielle N.Gunraj, April M.Drumm-Hewitt, Erica M.Dashow, Sri Siddhi N.Upadhyay, Celia M.Klin, Texting insincerely: The role of the period in text messaging. Computers in Human Behaviour, 55 (B) pp. 1067-1075. Retrieved July 28, 2021. ↩