December 5, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: A plea for punctuation

Posted in period, punctuation at 6:28 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: A Plea for Punctuation

I recently read an article in the New Republic that reported that punctuation marks are acquiring emotions, more specifically, that periods or full stops denote anger or hostility!* (That exclamation point denotes my surprise upon learning this, and I apologize to anyone I may have offended by using the pesky period.) Evidently, our technological advances that have make texting and instant messaging (IMing) possible have rendered the neutral, middle-of-the-road piece of punctuation indicating the end of the sentence moot.

 [NOTE: According to the spell checker in Microsoft Word—don’t get me started—IMing is spelled incorrectly, and it should be IM’ing. To me, that’s dumb. If we went by that logic, wouldn’t it be spelled I’M’ing? Next time you see the red squiggly line underneath IMing, just add it to the correct spelling list and be on your way. Now, back to the period.]

 Evidently, line breaks are often used in IMs and texts to indicate the end of a complete thought.

 I just finished reading the most recent issue of JAMA

 I thought the article by the University of Pennsylvania physician was fascinating

 Of course, if IMing or texting, I would probably get rid of all the capitalizations, too, but there’s no emotion associated with that, just efficiency:

i just finished reading the most recent issue of jama

i thought the article by the university of pennsylvania physician was fascinating

 According to the article, if I had written:

i just finished reading the most recent issue of jama.

It would signal that I was irritated with the journal or with the task of reading it. Oh my.

I agree that ending  a sentence or a thought with a line break is more economical in style than ending it with the period (press the key for period, press the key for space or line break—see, twice as much work).

The problem is that the interpretation of the period  is by no means universal, and its use can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings. I think we’ll just have to see, over time, whether the period wins its hostile takeover.

I just want to add that (as we’ve discussed before) there are many styles of writing, and I think they all have their place. There is the casual, conversational style that we use when we talk to each other and I use in this wlut. There is the more formal style that we use in our scientific manuscripts. There is the briefer style that we use when writing emails. And there is the even briefer style we use in IMs and texts and tweets (I almost called them twits–yes, I am, indeed, that old). All have their place. The important thing is to know when to use each and to not mix them up. The other thing to consider is what the recipient of your communication would like to hear. For example, if you are sending an email to someone more senior than you (and by senior, I mean ‘older’), you might want to write more formally and avoid IM shortcuts that could confuse or offend.

And try to lose the emoticons, please. ‘-)



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