Dot. Dot. Dot?


How the period became the most perfunctory punctuation mark.

With the rise of text messages and the linguistic lawlessness of the internet, the humble period is losing its power. Character limitations on Twitter, and the fast-moving and often conversational nature of digital and social communications has made periods optional in so many formats that the meaning of the period itself is evolving.

They’re not just less common today, the period is having new, perhaps unintended, consequences. The New York Times wrote a piece on periods (without using any!) featuring University of California Berkley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg who says, “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.” He further notes that the period can be “aggressive” or “emphatic.”

David Crystal – the former master of pronunciation at Shakespeare’s Globe theater – says this all began in the 1990s, when the internet was on the rise: “The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts…In the 1990s the internet created an ethos of linguistic free love where breaking the rules was encouraged and punctuation was one of the ways this could be done.”

Crystal asserts that millennials prefer punctuation-free sentences (something we explored here) and says that many short-form messages simply don’t require the explicit full stop of a period. We’re now so conditioned by text message brevity that sometimes there’s nothing worse than a period. So much so that some people overcompensate for it, going out of their way to avoid sending the wrong message, even in workplace emails and other formats where intention is harder to convey and often overlooked.

The period has gone from a functional dot to a sentence landmine, and communicators need to account for it. Office email is just one example. Consider advertisers, political candidates, or the fine people who write Blue Engine Insights. Getting across the right message in the right way is critical.

Exclamation points, emojis and even gifs may be a quick fix for conveying intention in short-form, but what if you’ve got a more important story to tell?image003

We’re seeing video overtake written communications as an increasingly easy and common way of telling a story and conveying a message – and with digital communications rendering the written word often vague or imprecise, communicators should look to new tools and find ways to go beyond words to connect with an audience.

Text message-style communications is fine on your phone or chat program but even if punctuation rules change, message clarity is just as important as ever. Just as you wouldn’t want to upset a co-worker with a poorly-placed period, or leave someone confused after watching a video or reading a story, when communicating, make sure your audience doesn’t question your intentions.