Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics

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Ben Crair, "The Period Is Pissed: When did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?", TNR 11/25/2013:

The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it's started 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." […]

This is an unlikely heel turn in linguistics. In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. "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.'"

For me, the most interesting thing about this article is the comments section. And I don't mean the occasional displays of entertainingly clueless bile:

No. This is not even remotely true. At least, it shouldn't be. People should spelled properly, punctuate properly, use proper grammar, no matter the medium. Not to mention that people should say what they mean, and mean what they say.

A period does not indicate tone or emphasis. A period indicates the end of a sentence.

This below is the proper way to use punctuation, as well as the proper way to express oneself:

Ben Crair, you are an idiot.

Nor do I mean the occasional flashes of insight, or even the reference to an insightful discussion of the same phenomenon from 2009:

Love this article because it TOTALLY VINDICATES ME!  My friends and family have thought I was crazy for years now, but I knew I was right!  I wrote this back in 2009 after years of voicing my opinion ( about adding a period)!

http://rockonflash.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/thanks/

I mean the sheer number of comments. Compare this article to those that preceded and followed it in TNR's Culture section, in chronological order:

 

ARTICLE NUMBER OF COMMENTS
A Heartbreaking Contemporary Account of America's Grief for Kennedy 0
Dear FCC, Please Don't Let Me Use My Phone on Airplanes 6
Yes, Japanese People Have Sex. But Do They Have Menopause? 1
Amazing Sculptures of Insects Made from Old Mechanical Parts 0
On Our Cover: Hate-Watching Washington 2
Viral video philosopher Jason Silva: "We're going to cure aging" 2
What Makes Us Human? Doing Pointless Things for Fun 2
What Happens When a Professor Tries To Use Philosophy to Prevent Suicide? 3
Do Readers Give Infographics a Free Pass? 0
Why Didn't an American Make '12 Years a Slave'? 14
Is Paolo Sorrentino Like Fellini? Even Better. 0
The Period is Pissed 125
How San Francisco's Latest Gold Rush Has Transformed the City 4
Meet the Man Who Wrote a 260-Page Biography on His BlackBerry 0
Hollywood's Animal-Cruelty Problem Must Look Familiar to the NFL and U.S. Military 0
The Most Blatant Ways Homeland Gets Washington Wrong 0
America's Least-Favorite City Has Become Television's Favorite Subject 0
What 'Scandal' Gets Right About Washington 0
My Holiday Plea: Stop Complaining About the Holidays 0

I've noted the popularity of peeving several times over the years, e.g. "The social psychology of lingusistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007; "Angry linguistic mobs with torches", 4/16/2008.

But maybe I should write "the popularity of linguistics", because only about two thirds of the comments are peeves or rebuttals of peeves. Even if we eliminate the peeves and counter-peeves, there are still about three times as many comments as there are for any of the other articles over the past few days.

 



50 Comments

  1. Aaron said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    I've noticed this for years in online games, where ending a chat message without a period has also long been the norm.

    A: we need another base to win
    B: i know

    Everything's fine.

    A: we need another base to win
    B: i know.

    Uh-oh, B is upset. Either he thinks A was being condescending, or he's just mad that we're losing. Especially in the heat of battle (though it happens outside of active play too), bothering to add a punctuation mark is definitely meaningful. I agree with the gloss from that 2009 blog post: ending with a period means "Bite me".

  2. Michael Cargal said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    What? You mean language changes? It doesn't stay as I learned it in high school?

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 9:11 am

    The Period. Is. Emphatic.

  4. JW Mason said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    The period thing is right, I think. But what about the article's claim that an exclamation point indicates sincerity? In my experience, it's more often a signal of irony or sarcasm.

    Also, PhD comics was here first: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1536

    [(myl) Good catch — I totally forgot about that strip, which suggests that this is not strictly age-related:


    ]

  5. mollymooly said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    When did newspaper headlines stop ending with a period?

  6. johndburger said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    Unsurprisingly, many of the commenters on the original article complain about this new symptom of the death of "proper" English. However I'm not sure this particular phenomenon is new to electronic communication. Consider the short hand-written notes we often leave for members of our household:

      I fed the cat

      Remember to take out the trash

      etc.

    I know of no corpus of such prosaic material, but I would be surprised if these are usually punctuated. I think many txt messages and tweets can be viewed similarly.

  7. Jan Schreuder said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    " because only about two thirds of the comments are peeves or rebuttals of peeves — and the non-peeve-related comments still outnumber the next-largest number of comments by a factor of three or so."
    I have a bit of difficulty figuring this out

    [(myl) Sorry — what I meant was that even if you eliminate the peeving and counter-peeving, there are still three times as many comments as there are for any of the other stories over the past few days.]

  8. Justin Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:09 am

    Is does not take that long to understand. Simple. Good enough. But we cannot usually leave the thought 'good enough' without its period–since it's a complete thought. The same thing is in our salutation convention but differently in the sense whether we want to have our 'own voice'. Some may prefer it as a complete thought and continue and other may prefer it to have a pause in order to continue. For example, if i salute you as 'Hello Sir', it is a complete thought. Whatever i want to say next is another thought without having neither a conjunctive nor a modified element to the previous thought. Yes, it's matter of style. And yes, a complete thought must be punctuated accordingly either by a period or of its similar.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    Uh-oh. I may have committed some faux pas in text messages.

    In the cartoon, I'd think the translation of ? could include "Caution: may signal a rhetorical question meant to demolish everything you wrote. Danger signs include more than one question in a row, expressions of surprise or puzzlement, and correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization."

  10. Alex said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    Hahaha. Best peever comment ever: "People should spelled properly, punctuate properly, use proper grammar, no matter the medium."

  11. Neal Goldfarb said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    How did this convention get started? Presumably not the same way thata new words enter the language, because it's usually possible to figure out what a new word means from the context. But unless you're aware of the convention, how the hell is it possible make an inference about the writer's state of mind—let alone an accurate inference—based only on the presence or absence of a period?

    It seems to me that while a convention is generally thought of as a tacit understanding, this one must have grown out of some kind of express agreement among a small group of people, and spread out from there. And also that the convention is spread as a result of explicit "instruction" rather than just imitation.

  12. Toma said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    @JW Mason
    And when someone uses a connective mark (or even capital letters) in a text message, they have to use two keystrokes to get to it. So that may be an indication of commitment to the message.

  13. Brian said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

    Neal Goldfarb: I don't think so. From informally polling my friends who omit the periods in online discussions, they say they just do it because they're lazy. The newline is already required, so why add a useless keystroke, right? If enough people do it, that can easily become a tacit convention. From that point, it's not too hard to get to the point where the actual presence of a period is clearly intentional. If you went to the extra effort to include it, it must mean something.

    (Plus it can become an in-group marker — check out that old fogey who always uses a period AND capitalizes the first word of each sentence. He probably thinks everything he says is so important. Lamer.)

  14. Tyler Schnoebelen said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    In terms of conversational tweets:

    – There are 7,550 instances of "f*ck you" in the full Twitter corpus I used for my dissertation and about 10% of all conversational tweets get emoticons. But instead of 755 tweets having both "f*ck you" and an emoticon, there are only 311. (This has removed all the CeeLo Green song references.)

    – 28,361 tweets with "love you" and an emoticon—that's over 2.19 times as many as we would've expected (133,592 total tweets with love you * 10% of all tweets have emoticons).

    – There are also 11,593 occurrences of "miss you" occurring with emoticons—that's 2.26 times as many as we'd expect.

    – It's probably worth stating that "you" itself is used 1.28 times more often with emoticons than we would've expected (659,029 tweets with you as opposed to the 516,410 that would've been expected were things distributed at random). If we remove "f*ck you", "love you", and "miss you" from the mix, there are still 1.24 times as many you's appearing with emoticons than we'd expect by chance.

  15. petri said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    i got a lot of two dots.. ellipsis: contracted.. finality, extended..

  16. richardelguru said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    Ralph Hickok,
    I think you left off a period.

  17. Rebecca said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    I think this dovetails nicely with the use of emphatic periods within phrases:

    I.don't.care

  18. David Morris said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

    In Australia most people say 'full stop', with 'period' being used to refer to refer to school classes or menstruation (hence the joke about Dracula promising to meet the schoolgirl next period). I remember when my younger sister was about 15, she was reading an American teen novel, and she said 'I don't understand why the females in this book use their period to finish an argument – like "I'm not doing my homework. Period." '

  19. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

    A subtle point that it might be best not to miss: in contexts where the period comes off as emphatic or final, people still use them normally between sentences that are part of the same message, because its function as a separator is still needed. The period that's missing by default and conveys emphatic-ness when present is the one at the end of each message.

  20. Svafa said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    Interesting. I still use capitalization and punctuation (even semicolons and parentheses) in my text messages and especially in online communications. That I recall I've never found anyone who thought it was aggressive or srsbsns, but I find it often depends on context and content. A one or two word reply doesn't get the same treatment as a full thought or couple sentences, and using leetspeak or various jargon often follows its own rules as to punctuation. Using Aaron's example in the first comment:

    A: We need another base to win.
    B: i know

    Would be fine and wouldn't come across as aggressive, though it may come across as wasteful if time is paramount to your victory. On the other hand, even "i know" is too pretentious. So let me fix that:

    A: We need another base to win.
    B: inorite?

    The question mark is optional, depending on how sardonic you want to be.

  21. Justin Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    Certainly confused. But let's look at some other examples within our own voices. 1) 'John, 1 cannot come to this kind of party.' What is 'John' here and what does the noun have to do with the sentence? If we examine our inner voices, it will then tell you something like 'and i want to tell you that'. 2) 'Dear John, i am too old to this party.' Our intuition or inner voices tell us that this example is as not as a completed thought as we do, for example, 'Dear John' in greetings.

  22. Adrian said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    "And yes, a complete thought must be punctuated accordingly either by a period or of its similar."

    A very large number of people seem to think that there is a statutory requirement to punctuate in a certain way. This is mainly the result of poor teaching and/or curriculums – learning how to write is *partly* about the conventions that we use, but not at the expense of easy self-expression.

    It's entirely natural to drop the period when texting, tweeting or FB commenting. And in that case, it's also natural if a new meaning should start to attach itself to the use of the period in such situations.

  23. Lisa said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

    I've heard linguists categorize texting as "finger language," more closely related to spoken word than written word. Assuming a period – as a punctuation mark – is a marker for written language [to indicate the close of a "period"], then it makes sense to me that it would come across as abrupt-sounding to end a text with a period [mark] as it would to say aloud, "I will feed the cat – period."

  24. Mike Anderson said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    Srsly? My peeps get fumblefingered and hit the send button mid-message frequently

    but they blithely pick up mid-statement and type some more,

    so a period is a really great clue that the message has actually ended.

  25. Oscar Jenz said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

    I find it that my use of the period varies with how 'serious' I want my register to be more than aggression per se. If I'm just having a casual chat with my friend over IM I'll gladly let the sentences hang, but if we're talking about a serious issue/something related to work I'm way more likely to end with a period.

    To use the online game example, its 'I know' if I'm just playing for the sake of playing, and 'I know.' throughout the entire game if I really want to win for some reason.

  26. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    A: "How do you know that Mary is pregnant?"
    B: "Because she Mr."

  27. Clive Moss said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

    The aggressive use of the period mirrors a spoken usage that I remember from the middle of the last century, often said by my elders:
    "I do not want do discuss this. Period."
    or other contexts like "No. Period"

  28. the other Mark P said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 11:47 pm

    A very large number of people seem to think that there is a statutory requirement to punctuate in a certain way. This is mainly the result of poor teaching and/or curriculums

    And your evidence that it is the fault of the teachers and/or curriculum is?

    Sometimes people want to be wrong, no matter how much contrary evidence. (Witness the ones who insist every thought must end in a punctuation, despite centuries of newspaper headlines showing that to be incorrect.)

    The rise of "give it to myself" is an example of people trying to be formal and failing to do it properly. I would suggest that few, if any English teachers, teach that. Not every flaw in society can be laid at the teachers' door.

  29. D.O. said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    @Jan Schreuder,10:07 am and myl: makes for a nice little math problem.

  30. Andy Averill said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    Maybe using periods expressively isn't all that new. I'm reminded of the famous magazine ads for the Volkswagen Beetle in the early 60's, like these two. The period seems to say something like "it's so self-evident that this is the car you want that we don't have to go on and on about it."

  31. Chris C. said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:12 am

    Hahaha. Best peever comment ever: "People should spelled properly, punctuate properly, use proper grammar, no matter the medium."

    His very next sentence is also a grammatically incorrect fragment.

  32. Daniel said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:21 am

    And don't forget the famous final sentence of 1066 and All That: "America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a ."

  33. joanne salton said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 3:28 am

    I don't know about the rest of you, but if I participate in an online chatroom, phone-text conversation or a tweet-session then the relative frostiness of my prose is painfully apparent from the first capital all the way through to the final full stop. I should, perhaps, adapt my language, but then I would feel like an old lady wearing a baseball cap backwards.

  34. pj said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 4:26 am

    @Toma

    when someone uses a connective mark (or even capital letters) in a text message, they have to use two keystrokes to get to it

    Surely not? I don't know every phone, of course, but mine have for at least the last 9 years by default capitalised the first letter of a text and the next after a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark (using predictive text, on a '2-abc' keypad). A full stop is also just one keystroke ('1') – though I grant you, one more than no-full-stop.

  35. Jen said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 5:36 am

    Doesn't the 1066 and All That one only work if you read it as 'history came to a full stop'? History is full of periods!

  36. Adrian said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    "And your evidence that it is the fault of the teachers and/or curriculum is?" Who else could it be the fault of?

    The other example you give, of the overuse of "myself", can also be partly blamed on English teachers. Teaching English isn't easy. The children before you can (almost) all communicate already, so you are in the business of honing that communication. Unfortunately, many teachers, especially if they are hampered by a clunky curriculum and/or faced with a "mixed-ability" group, do this with only mixed success. Many children are left confused by (at least some of) the words, usages and rules that they are expected to bolt on to their language. This is one of the causes of the "nervous cluelessness" that is often discussed on LL.

  37. kd said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    I feel like this could be a register thing; in the informal register of text/online messaging punctuation and capitalisation are used fairly sparingly, so that if you abruptly start using markers of formal written English like full-stops it suggests you are intentionally distancing yourself from the other person, as in the cartoon example of an angry parent switching from the usual 'Bart' to 'Bartholomew Simpson'.

  38. Narmitaj said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    And in the final sentence of Waiting For Go. [Go DOT]: Estragon says "Yes, let's go."

  39. Rodger C said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    @Adrian: What you say is quite true, but I don't see how it adds up to the proposition that the teacher (or anyone) is at fault.

  40. Sven said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    What is the purpose of the period in a medium where every message contains exactly one sentence?

  41. Mark Dowson said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    This discussion just confirms my determination never to use IM – which amuses (and, in a few cases irritates) my work colleagues with whom I exchange frequent long and short email messages. IM is intrusive, requiring an immediate response, and discourages editing messages before sending them. Email allows a reply to be deferred without giving offense, is just as fast, and only requires one additional mouse click by the sender or receiver – and retains a permanent record of the conversation if needed.

    This attitude probably brands me as old-fashioned or worse, but having been using email to communicate since 1970, I don't feel an urgent need to change.

  42. The Ridger said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    "IM is intrusive, requiring an immediate response," – if by IM you mean texting, this is somewhat funny, since most people I know say it's calling which is rude, as texting allows you to ignore it and answer when you like.

    You can of course be rude in any medium.

  43. Mark Dowson said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    By "IM" I mean Instant Messaging – but I don't text either.

  44. Tim Finin said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 10:45 am

    I'm interested in the use of periods to end text in the bulleted lists in presentation slides. Many people often put a periods at the end of short phrases or sentence fragments used as bullets. Worse yet, they are often inconsistent, ending some bullets in a list with a period and some not.

    I've decided that periods are not needed to end a bullet's text if it is a fragment or a single well formed sentence. The whole purpose of the bullet list format is to clearly signal where its items start and end.

    A second principle I now follow is that every character on a presentation slide should serve a purpose. My current practice is to keep bulleted list items to a single phrase or sentence and never to end them with a period.

  45. Yuval said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 12:32 am

  46. Yuval said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 12:33 am

    Aw, dammit. I thought I was posting this picture.

  47. Mark Dowson said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 9:22 am

    @Tim Finin: A good general principle for bullets in presentation slides is to treat the bullet characters after the first as fulfilling the function of semi-colons in a sentence, so there is only a period at the end of the text of the last bullet. But this breaks down somewhat if a bullet has sub-bullets.

  48. Barbara Partee said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    This no-periods convention was completely unknown to me. I asked in a semantics reading group on Wednesday if people knew about it — most of the grad students did, several of the faculty members didn't. And the grad students confirmed that in messages coming from us old guys, a period wouldn't be taken as aggressive, just as confirmation that we're old guys and not always up on the latest. (But some of the younger people didn't know that (at least on the iPhone) just hitting 'space' twice gets you a period. Once you know that, there's no longer any 'laziness' reason for leaving out the periods.)

  49. Tyler Schnoebelen said,

    December 3, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Some results from looking at data:

    http://idibon.com/period-really-may-be-pissed/

  50. Grandpa said,

    December 3, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    TEXTS ON ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH USUALLY FULLY PUNCTUATED STOP HOW ELSE WOULD YOU KNOW WHETHER GARBLED OR TRUNCATED SEMICOLON CLOSE PARENTHESIS STOP

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