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. ↢