The new semiotics of punctuation

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A few weeks ago, the same teen language consultant who warned me that abbreviating words in texting (e.g. "u" = "you", "4" = "for") is something that only old people do anymore, pointed out that my habit of ending statement-style texts with a period communicates an affect that I probably don't intend.

I was skeptical, but this morning's PhD Comics confirms the generalization (although it's about email, which obviously skews the sample to an older demographic)…

This clearly has something to do with the discussion of the two variants of the Obama slogan "Forward." and "Forward" — but now we've broadened the discussion to slogans as well as texts and emails.


  1. Bummer said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    I think this is pretty spot on (an idiom I've never felt carried very many class connotations, if I may beat that horse again), especially the use of the single period. While your professor might be telegraphing that you're in trouble, I mostly just use (and interpret, depending on the other party) it for emphasis. Obviously, a period is a full stop, but, in short text messages, I feel like it almost SAYS full stop, with all the attendant emphasis of that phrase. "Best movie ever" is one thing, but "Best. Movie. Ever." is quite another.

    For another (strangely accurate) exercise in text parsing, check out

  2. Mike W said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    The semantic difference I make between single period and no period is exactly the opposite of Cham's. To me, no period communicates vagueness and incompleteness. I suppose if someone is intentionally trying to communicate a lack of vagueness without giving any other further information, that could be seen as intentionally hiding something.

  3. Andrew said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    > "4″ = "four"
    I think you mean "4" = "for".

    > communicates an affect
    Not so sure of this one, but do you mean "effect"?

    That's all 4 now, c u l8r.

    [(myl) I certainly meant "for" not "four" — typo now corrected, thanks. But I meant "affect" not "effect", sorry.]

  4. Amelia Eve said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    The substitutions of "U" for "you" and "4" for "for" made sense when using t9 style texting on a flip phone. Since smart phones emulate a full keyboard and many have autocorrect functions, it can actually require more effort to use the abbreviated forms. (For instance, I have to shift to type a numeral, which for me is more onerous than typing out "for.") I'm interested to see that this comic excludes the dash or hyphen as punctuation. I guess it doesn't really fit the example, but I find that it largely takes the place of all the other connectors in texts and especially in IMs.

  5. Laura said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    While we're examining Mark's language, nice positive 'anymore'.

    I think this comic chimes pretty closely with my intuitions, actually, and certainly these days only old people (like me, it seems) bother with a full stop. It's starting to look pretty natural

    [(myl) "Only Xs do Y anymore" is at best/worst a sort of mixed case, since it means roughly "no one but Xs does Y anymore".]

  6. Chandra said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    I have found my own usage of punctuation in texts baffling even to me. There is definitely a difference in affect when using a period vs. not using one, and I sort of intuitively know when I should and shouldn't, but I have no idea how to explain it.

  7. Edith said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    I think "Best. Movie. Ever." is a special case, because to me, the periods are used here to indicate syncopated speech, i.e. the pauses which, if you were talking, you would use for to convey a certain meaning (here, emphasis). The full stop is used here simply as a surrogate for those pauses, and not as a 'regular' full stop. (Side note – capitalisation plays an important role here, which is why every time I see something like "(…)which is why I think 'My Fair Lady' is the best. Musical. Ever" I'm always thrown off by the lowercase b and have to go back and read again. But I've not managed to come up with a way around this that would satisfy me as far as style is concerned (and I do think that this is in essence a matter of style.))

    And I agree somewhat with Mike W above: I, too, feel that a missing full stop is less definitive (especially if full stops have been used further up in the text) and try to place it whenever possible. This appears to apply only to my texts, though, and I don't think I ever notice a missing full stop in any of the texts I receive…

  8. Ellen K. said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    In reply to Amelia Eve.

    I thought t9 means predictive text? In predictive mode, I find it takes more effort, and usually more presses, to type the shorter forms. "u" and "you" are the same number of presses (4 each), but "for" is one press less than "4". It's when not using predictive mode that abbreviations take less effort.

  9. Rube said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    I'm a lawyer, not a professor, but this comes so close to reflecting my current e-mail practice that it's scary. (I'm 53, FWIW)

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

    I'll confess that this sort of thing in both email and texting presses my prescriptivist buttons more than almost anything else. I was a first generation instant messaging user, but I steadfastly refused to abandon conventional English usage in IMs, even more so in email. Texting presented a bit more of a challenge, but I've held the line there, too.

    I really do have a fair bit of cognitive dissonance about this, as my rational descriptivist side insists that this is all perfectly appropriate in context while my lizard-brain prescriptivist side insists ack!, stupidity, hatehatehategrumble.

  11. Lazar said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    One rule that I don't think I've ever seen explicitly stated, but which I've come to follow quite consistently, is that a period is used after all sentences of a message except the last. It's not quite so relevant for text messages, which tend to be quite short, but in my personal style I'd write an IRC message like, "i really enjoyed that movie. the acting and direction were both top-notch"

  12. Joe Green said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:41 pm


    While we're examining Mark's language, nice positive 'anymore'.

    Continuing this minor diversion, surely "any more"? Or is this an AmE/BrE thing?

    Meanwhile I'm with my fellow crusty old pedants who use proper spelling, punctuation and capitalisation in every IM/text/email/whatever. Bah humbug.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    Can the dissonance be between pragmatics and group identification? I.e. it makes sense to abbreviate in context, but doing so would put me in the despised group who not only abbreviate, but also chew gum, leave doors open, or blame lower socioeconomic classes for the results of their own failings.

  14. leoboiko said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    @Amelia: I got used to typing in all-lowercase in old cellphones. Modern models (even the simpler dumbphones) automatically capitalize sentences, and it takes more work to force them not to do it. But now capitalization often feels wrong for me in a texting context—too stilted and grand­iose—and so I take the extra trouble of changing to lowercase input.

  15. CherylT said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 5:41 am

    The text entry on my phone automatically adds a space after a proposed word is accepted, which means deleting the space as well as adding a full stop/period at the end of a sentence. This is one of the problems with predictive spelling, along with missed capitals.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:55 am


    I find that if I don't accept the proposed word (as you put it), that is, if I select (if needed) the right word but don't hit enter (well, the equivalent), then I can enter punctuation without it adding a space.

    (Yes, I know this isn't Using a Cell Phone Log.)

  17. Svafa said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:45 am

    I suppose I'm not meant for the professorship… My primary form of punctuation in texts is very likely the semicolon. It's just so useful for stringing disparate comments into a single string of thought.

  18. wonderclock said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    Speaking of punctuation, I notice that you, Mark L, put your periods and commas outside of your quotation marks. (Though I'm sure you'd put them inside, if they belonged to what you were quoting.) As a college writing instructor, I've been telling my students for years that this is the British convention, whereas the – less logical, really – American convention is to put 'em always on the inside. But it seems to me that the American convention is rapidly going extinct, and that it no longer seems "uneducated" for an American to adopt the British convention. You're an American, right, Mark L? Thoughts?

  19. Chris B. said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    I first felt the effects of excessive periodization at Hampton Inns years ago when I noticed that almost anything in the room with a label had a single period affixed to the end and did not start with a capital letter. This went from tea mugs with the imperative "relax." on them to bars of soap with "french milled bath soap." on the wrapper. For some reason, I imagined a luxuriant female voice saying all of these things, which is probably what Hampton Inn intended.

  20. Svafa said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    @wonderclock: Mark is certainly more qualified to answer than I, but a another American I can at least attest to my own switch and suspicions based on it. The single greatest cause of my change to the British convention has been programming and a change in perspective to treating quotes as literal strings. On a side note, this has also led to my treating text within single quotes as stricter than text within double quotes.

    I suspect that the increasing immersion in technology has had some influence on the language (and I wouldn't be surprised at an increase in the British convention as a result) as programmers and coding conventions become ubiquitous.

  21. Mike G said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    @wonderclock: Ben Yagoda actually commented about the grammatical tendencies of several LL posters (including myl's preference for "logical punctuation") in today's entry for the Lingua Franca blog at the CHE ( — sorry, I don't know enough HTML to conceal the URL).

    On the issue of terminal periods in e-mail communication: if the sentence is otherwise grammatically sound and there is no final period, I usually assume the writer prematurely hit "send." On the other hand, if the content is not otherwise grammatically sound, then the lack of a period doesn't affect my estimation of the content. I suspect that adherence to other punctuation rules by the writer sets me up to view the failure to include a terminal period as an error rather than an intentional choice with connotative intent.

  22. Lazar said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    @Mike G: What's the alleged problem with "can't help but think"? I've never seen that one peeved against.

  23. Mike G said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    @Lazar: Ben Yagoda's earlier post about "can't help but" is at

  24. anita smulovitz said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:17 am


    It made me remember the Dean I worked for. He certainly would not use any question marks or exclaimations and would probably use a series of periods.

  25. Stephen Downes said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    I would use .. to signify the end of the message.

    It is related to — which also signifies end-of-message, and in old email readers would actually change font or colour and initiate the message footer.


  26. Adrian said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    Generally speaking, I don't put a full stop at the end of a tweet or a Facebook status. I'm not sure why that is, but a full stop seems unnecessary.

  27. Link love: language (48) « Sentence first said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    […] The new semiotics of punctuation. […]

  28. Eneri Rose said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Re: Nathan Myers,…"it makes sense to abbreviate in context, but doing so would put me in the despised group who not only abbreviate, but also chew gum, leave doors open, or blame lower socioeconomic classes for the results of their own failings."

    I would think members of this despised group would blame HIGHER socioeconomic classes for their own failings, as in victimisation.

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