A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 75: the end of the full stop. Period?

I’m on holiday this week, spending some time in sunny Wisconsin with my wife Leigh’s family,* but a minor kerfuffle in the world of punctuation has come to pass that demands comment.

The issue is this: is the full stop on the ropes? That’s the thesis being discussed by newspaper writers in both Europe and America, prompted by remarks made by David Crystal at the recent Hay Festival. As quoted by the Telegraph’s Hannah Furness, Dr Crystal said:

One of the places the full stop is really being revised in a really fundamental way is on the internet. […] You look at the internet or any instant messaging exchange – anything that is a fast dialogue taking place. People simply do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point. The full stop is now being used in those circumstances as an emotion marker.

This isn’t the first time that the apparent disappearance of the full stop has come under scrutiny. Back in 2013, Ben Crair of the New Republic noted that full stops were becoming increasingly rare in instant messages, and asked: “when did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?” In “The Period Is Pissed”, Crair theorised that as full stops disappear from our instant messages, the stops that remain assume a more assertive, final tone. Whether that’s true or not, it would certainly be in agreement with Dr Crystal’s assertion that the full stop is becoming a more emotive mark as it appears in fewer of our online messages.

What interests me is tangential to the change in meaning: why is it that the period is disappearing in the first place? I have to wonder if it’s all down to the medium, rather than the message.

My first instinct is blame Twitter. Consider the tweet: one hundred and forty characters isn’t much to play with (even if, as reported, links and photographs will soon be excluded from that total), and in such an environment all marks, whether letters or punctuation, become correspondingly more expensive. However, I’m not sure this is the whole story.

We’ve talked here many times about why the pilcrow (¶) disappeared in favour of the paragraph indent, and to me the decline of the full stop in online conversations is happening for much the same reason — in many cases the ‘.’ is rendered obsolete by changes in the visual appearance of the text in question. Both David Crystal and Ben Crair highlight instant messaging as a player in the ongoing drama of the full stop, and although most IM apps don’t labour under Twitter’s self-imposed character limits, they do share one particular feature: in almost every case, individual messages are surrounded by a border of pixels or a similar visual delineation. Why add a full stop to the end of a sentence when that sentence already luxuriates its own speech bubble?

Of course, this isn’t the full story — not all online text takes the form of instant messages or tweets, and not all IM applications format messages in such a regimented, delineated way. I’d love to hear your thoughts: is use of the full stop really on the wane? If so, why? Leave your comments below or, if you’d prefer, drop me a line via the Contact page!

Top tips for a trip to Wisconsin: against all odds, Sparta’s Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum is a great place to visit; and, inexplicably, you’ll have oodles of fun at the Bizarro World mansion that is The House on the Rock. Architecture critics should stick to Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Taliesin Estate
Full disclosure: Crair interviewed me for his article; I didn’t feel then and I don’t feel now that it’s possible to say for certain that the period is becoming more aggressive, regardless of the context in which it’s used. 

17 comments on “Miscellany № 75: the end of the full stop. Period?

  1. Comment posted by Jason Black on

    Your comment about speech bubbles is interesting, and makes me wonder what the standard practice is for full stops in comic books and newspaper comic strips. Did the practice originate there, I wonder?

    1. Comment posted by Brian on

      It certainly seems that some sort of origin can be traced from there — if not as an influence, then as an example of parallel evolution. I’m as much of a stickler as anyone for fully punctuating IMs and other forms of casual online conversation. But whenever I draw cartoons, I leave the periods out of single-sentence speech bubbles. They just look strange and out-of-place.

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jason, Brian — that’s an interesting point (*groan*). A quick Google image search suggests that full stops are usually used even when a speech bubble contains only a single sentence, but I’d certainly be interested in learning more about comic book punctuation in general.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

    This makes as much sense as claiming that telegrams meant the end the full stop [insert long diatribe here about how there was a code for “period” in Morse code but that the government prescribed pricing structure for telegrams made it cheaper to send the word “stop” than to send a piece of punctuation].

    The world at large can’t seem to grasp the concept that text messaging, chat, and twitter are not English writing in the conventional sense. They are entirely new modes of communication. You might consider it transcribed speech, or conversational text. But most importantly these new modes of are additions to our communication, not replacements for traditional writing.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — I’m not sure it’s true that the world doesn’t draw a distinction between informal texts (such as SMS and IM messages) and other, “proper” texts, but that they see the distinction and know that practices from the one often seep into the other. Lots of online news stories and blog posts incorporate informal elements such as emoticons and emoji, for example. Perhaps that’s the issue?

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Alex McCartney on

    Did DC really suggest the full stop was on the wane? In his most recent blogpost, he quite rightly complained about the media misrepresentation of what he actually said at the Hay Festival.


    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Alex — he makes the point that the full stop is used less often these days in informal online texts such as instant messages, if only because omitting the ‘.’ changes the tone of a message. The media then brewed that (entirely reasonable) observation into a full-blown storm in a teacup.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Comment posted by woofboy on

    You’re right that the full stop isn’t so needed in something already delineated, like a text message, but it might be worth stating the obvious, that the full stop will be dropping out of various instant messaging mediums for the sake of speed. Either that, or because you’re my mum and you haven’t figured out how to do them yet.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Also true! Thanks for the comment

      (See what I did there?)

  5. Comment posted by Ralph on

    The problem with texting is that people like to do it quickly, and punctuation marks don’t appear on the basic, default keyboard (at least on my phone)—meaning that every time you want a punctuation mark, you have to drill down to get to it. That’s that main problem: it’s too much trouble. (Even I—a stickler for punctuation—resent having to mess around searching for punctuation marks when trying to bang out a text message.)

    Elsewhere online (forums, Facebook etc.), people are happy to pepper posts with punctuation (even though they don’t how to do it properly)—as long as they’re typing on a full keyboard.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Ralph — that’s another good point, and perhaps another reason why the full stop is seemingly disappearing from (mobile-first) chat applications but staying the course elsewhere.

  6. Comment posted by Richard Rutter on

    Just as you might omit a full stop from your IM or tweet because of the inherent delineation in the medium, so I’ve read advice to omit full stops (and commas for that matter) from the end of bullet points, because each subsequent bullet sufficiently marks the end of the previous one that a full stop is not needed. The trouble with this is if your bullet points contain multiple sentences, in which case some of your sentences will end in a full stop and others won’t.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I do that as well, and I face exactly the same problem. If some bullet points in a list are sentences, I tend to reword all of them to match.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Comment posted by Simon Smallwood on

    All properly educated people should use at least 3 full stops where 1 would normally do to make up for the bad manners of these idle texters…

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Well, quite. How else will we fit in enough full stops to compensate…?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That’s a great article! Thanks for posting it. In the same vein, I noticed the other day that the Indy 100 Facebook page doesn’t use full stops at the end of their story ledes.

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