CULTURE & ARTS

The Period Is Dead. Long Live The Period.

The absence of periods in texts means the punctuation mark is dying. Or maybe not.

The internet and smartphone are slaying the workhorse of our language, says The New York Times.

In a June 9 article, "Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style," Dan Bilefsky cited the work of several linguists, such as the eminent David Crystal, on punctuation usage in digital communication to argue that the period, the end point of most sentences, is fading away. 

Adorably, Bilefsky emphasized this point by ending nearly every sentence in the piece with a paragraph break rather than a period, a headache-inducing choice that hopefully offered no true glimpse into newspaper stylings of the future:

One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying

The period — the full-stop signal we all learn as children, whose use stretches back at least to the Middle Ages — is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age

Bilefsky quotes Crystal on the waning presence of periods in brief digital messages -- such as texts -- as evidence for this rather bold theory: "In an instant message, it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end," Crystal told The Times. "So why use it?" 

Indeed, many don't. One 2007 study found that of messages studied, just 39 percent of sentences in texts and 45 percent of sentences in IMs ended in periods.

Crystal, like other researchers, has noted an accompanying perception that full stops in IMs and text messages connote aggression, dissatisfaction, or hostility. "The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts," he told The Times. Another linguist, Geoffrey Nunberg, agreed. "It is not necessary to use a period in a text message, so to make something explicit that is already implicit makes a point of it." 

All this, apparently, seems to add up to the point that the "point" is soon to be no more.

But it's never made much sense for periods to be incorporated into text messages, which resemble formalized writing less than they resemble speech. Text messages and instant messages replaced, for most people, phone conversations -- quick chats over where to meet up or long, late-night heart-to-hearts by the landline. These exchanges replaced meeting in person for a conversation. These interactions, formatted as responsive, chatty exchanges of short statements, mimic spoken conversations rather than written letters or articles. One linguist even found our diction in text messages shows verbal speech patterns rather than written ones.

This particular New York Times piece aside, there hasn't been much evidence that a laissez-faire attitude toward the period is migrating from digital messaging to the broader category of the written word. Actually, this article is a great example of why: In longer, formalized pieces of writing, the natural breaks that might be signaled by pauses in speaking -- or by the end of a text message -- need to be clearly shown by other means.

The period has done a laudable job of that for centuries. Will we simply give up on it now? Having read an article without periods, and developed a corresponding eye twitch, I can confidently say: We. Will. Not.

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