Aug 25, 2020 SHARE
Full stops are intimidating. But commas, however, can be rather annoying … thank you!
We explore the subtextual underbelly of everyday punctuation
It’s an unfriendly sign of aggression. Full stop.
At least that’s what Generation Z thinks of the punctuation mark, according to an ongoing debate on Twitter. People born between the mid-to-late 1990s, a generation that grew up with smartphones, the internet and social media, find the full stop intimidating when used in written messages, linguists say.
The conversation appears to have been ignited by a since-deleted tweet from The Guardian columnist Rhiannon Cosslett on August 14, who wrote: “Older people – do you realise that ending a sentence with a full stop comes across as sort of abrupt and unfriendly to younger people in an email/chat? Genuinely curious.”
Coco Chanel once said ‘before leaving the house, a lady should look in the mirror and remove one accessory’. The 2020 version is that before pressing send, a person should read their email and only leave one !
Linguistic experts took to social media to share their thoughts, including Dr Lauren Fonteyn from Holland’s Leiden University, who tweeted: “If you send a text message without a full stop, it’s already obvious that you’ve concluded the message. So if you add that additional marker for completion, they will read something into it and it tends to be a falling intonation or negative tone.”
Owen McArdle, a linguist at the University of Cambridge, also told The Telegraph: “Full stops are, in my experience, very much the exception and not the norm in [young people’s] instant messages, and have a new role in signifying an abrupt or angry tone of voice.”
The conversation has also given rise to headlines, such as this one courtesy of The Sun: “Snowflakes ‘think full stops are aggressive and unfriendly’.”
This is not the first time that linguists have explored the perception of the full stop in modern-day correspondence, with a 2015 study by New York’s Binghamton University finding that the punctuation was perceived as “insincere”. “When speaking, people easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses and so on,” research leader Celia Klin said at the time.
“People obviously can’t use these mechanisms when they are texting. Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them – emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds and, according to our data, punctuation.”
There is something of an abrupt finality to a full stop when applied in a text message or social media comment, that can signify a lack of warmth, depending on one’s relationship with the sender. Signing off “Thanks.”, as opposed to “Thanks!”, might make many give pause, however fleeting, to the level of gratitude actually conveyed.
But the full stop is not the only punctuation mark that can be perceived in a multitude of different ways, regardless of intentions.
Here are other punctuational subtexts
Used liberally by people who like to inject humour – successfully or otherwise – in written correspondence but want to make it clear their remarks are made in jest. This can be particularly useful when it comes to employing sarcasm, to ensure the recipient reads the comment with droll intention rather than at face value, though it does tend to make the writer sound more like an excitable Labrador than the next Larry David.
The exclamation mark is also often used by people in senior or management positions who want to be liked. Case in point: “Hi team, let’s all get together at 1pm today – just to discuss targets!”
Coco Chanel once said “before leaving the house, a lady should look in the mirror and remove one accessory”. The 2020 version is that before pressing send, a person should read their email and only leave one !, if it’s being sent in a professional capacity.
While a single exclamation mark is used to indicate lightheartedness, the double or triple use of one is quite the opposite.
This can be often be used by managers who have no intention of being liked, and will replace their in-person screaming with multiple exclamation points if forced to make a reprimand over email or text.
A string of exclamation marks that tips the four or more scale is typically reserved for the kind of person who either sends memes to the entire office, or the kind that isn’t good at sharing.
Can often be seen on passive-aggressive Post-Its left on shared fridges.
The ellipsis is typically used in one of two ways. It can either be employed as an alternative indication of sarcasm, almost like a grammatical eye roll, or it can used in an act of passive aggression.
To wit: “Hi Charlie, did you notice the typo in that report you filed, or … “
There is also a third use, more commonly seen on social media, which best illustrates a person with limited grasp of punctuation, whereby … is used to mark where anything from a full stop to a comma should actually be, resulting in a breathy stream of consciousness.
An underused piece of punctuation when it comes to texts, tweets and emails. While the semi-colon doesn’t denote much emotion, there is the subtext that the author is drawing attention to their educated use of one, intentionally or otherwise, perhaps invoking a sense of inferiority in the reader. When used incorrectly, the opposite is true.
Most of us use commas in all written communication (not necessarily correctly, but hey ho). When used sparingly, they impart little to no feeling, merely indicating where a breath might occur. When used liberally, however grammatically correct, they can feel loaded.
“It was noticed, Hannah, that you left the office at 4pm, however, your contract stipulates you should be at work until 4.15pm, unless otherwise agreed.”
There’s a formality to the use of a comma that can, when used by a certain type of person, feel like a telling off or a flagrant display of a sense of superiority, regardless of the topic.
The curly brackets, also known as braces, traditionally signify a portion of text that should be taken as a group, especially when another type of bracket – () or  – is used. The curly brackets are most prevalent in poetry.
However, when seen in a text or tweet, these usually signify the writer has butterfingers, and has hit the wrong button on their keyboard.
Updated: August 25, 2020 03:28 PM