The receiving end of the text above is an uncomfortable place to be. Why? Because "thanks" ends in a period. Yes, it may just mean "thanks." Or it might mean "thanks, but not really, because your tardiness is annoying."
A Binghamton University research team analyzed periods in text messages in a study published in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior." Researchers gave 126 undergrads a series of brief text messages -- represented as a phone screen printed on paper (because, you know, budgets) -- to evaluate on a scale from most to least "sincere." Participants also received a series of brief handwritten exchanges, Xeroxed from loose-leaf paper, for comparison.
Here's an example text:
Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna come?
And the reply:
To the Binghamton undergrads, a text message reply ending in a period did not seem as "sincere" as other choices. Beneath stories about the study on the Internet, the comment section reached a boil.
"I hate internet abbreviations and the sloppiness they breed," said one disgruntled commenter. "Philistines," declared another. "I contend that the use of proper English grammer [sic], spelling and punctuation intimidates those who pay (or paid) more attention to their smart phones than their teachers," wrote another still.
But -- brace yourselves, all ye who are set in your ways -- sincerity is only part of the period's evolving role in our language. Dun dun dun!
In his 2013 New Republic essay, which the Binghamton researchers acknowledge, Ben Crair argues that our tiniest punctuation mark can help us express something else: different shades of anger.
"I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats," Crair wrote, "where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce 'I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.'"
I've noticed it, too. Asking "Do you watch 'Real Housewives'?" and receiving:
Sounds way more friendly than:
But, to me, that's not a question of sincerity. My friend sincerely means to say, "No, I do not watch 'Real Housewives,'" but ending with a period lets me know she's a little miffed that I even had to ask. In other words, the period isn't shrouding the text's true meaning. It's adding another layer of meaning.
In another scenario, I'd texted a friend what I thought of a local coffee shop. Her reply:
Here, the period does something else -- it offers emphasis. She also thinks Ost Cafe plays good music (because it's true).
The more we text, the more we see the medium mimicking the richness of communicating face-to-face, even if that nuance comes at the expense of "proper" punctuation. As painful as that is. (A note to self-declared grammarians: Knowing the standard rules and choosing to ignore them to better convey your purpose is not a mark of a poor education, as one Facebook commenter suggested.) Like choosing an emoji, or the number of Ys in "Hey," or any of the other visual cues we use in written communication to indicate tone and purpose, using a period to end a text has become a delicate operation.
For their part, the Binghamton researchers acknowledge that there's more going on than the results of their one experiment suggest. "Our claim is not so much that the period is used to convey a lack of sincerity in text messages," the report reads, "but that punctuation is one of the cues used by senders, and understood by receivers, to convey pragmatic and social information."
The team also concludes by calling for more attention to the topic, stating their study's results "highlight the potential fruitfulness" of other such investigations. (Just think of the heated grammar-related arguments we could be having if some other group takes them up on that suggestion!)
So, is there something weird going on with the way we're using periods now? Probably. Do periods in text messages indicate something more than just level of sincerity? Probably. Should you curse the unstoppable evolution of human language? Probably not. You'll just tire yourself out.
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