The Rise and Fall of the Lowly Period


I long ago passed the age at which the odd linguistic turns of the young started taking me completely by surprise. In fact, I think I passed that age around the same time I got old enough to drink legally. I like to joke that I was born 55 years old, and only recently have I finally worked myself into my natural age. Except that I’m not sure it’s really a joke.

Anyway. Punctuation! Let’s talk about it??? It turns out that dropping the period at the end of text messages—initially for the purely technical reason that it was a pain in the ass on teensy little phone keyboards—has now become so standard that the smartphone generation actually takes offense when they see one:

“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,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email. How and why did the period get so pissed off?

….“In the world of texting and IMing … the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.’”

How about that? It’s like reading an anthropological field report, isn’t it? “Be sure not to use periods at the end of your texts, as the natives have been known to get restless when they see one.”

Luckily for me, I almost never text or IM, so I haven’t been inadvertently offending people. Normally I do that by writing snarky blog posts that turn out to sound a little more hostile than I intended. But for the rest of you, start dropping those periods unless you want to come across as an imperious martinet. You. Have. Been. Warned.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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