Have you been attacked by your punctuation lately?

Recently I read a scholarly article claiming that young people raised on social media found the full stop ‘intimidating’ at the end of a message. Several studies, one from Binghampton University in New York and one from Leiden University in Holland, concluded that social media messages were ended by pressing ‘send’ and therefore addending an unnecessary full stop to a sentence lent an angry or accusatory tone. Even worse, putting a full stop after an abbreviation, like ‘lol.’ or ‘lmao.’ was seen as aggressive or insincere.

What? Intimidated by a dot?

And what’s more, a dot that has been around since the 3rd Century BC and therefore more than qualifies for the status of ‘inoffensive doddery senior citizen’?

Once I had picked my chin up off the floor, I consulted with my local social media experts, ie, my daughters.

“Can you believe,” I began, “that this article claims that people under the age of 30 are intimidated by a full stop?”

“Well, yes,” replied the elder one from the dizzy superiority of her 23 years. “When we get a message from you, and if there is a full stop at the end, we always go ‘Oooh,” and wonder what we have done wrong. You say things like ‘OK.’, ‘Great.’ and it makes you sound angry.”

Much as I love my daughters, I was still not convinced, so I had a look at my social media timelines… and for the first time I noticed that every message I got from a young person did not end with a full stop.

And when I looked at my own messages, with the full stop that now leapt out at me and smacked me in the eye, they did seem loaded with negative emphasis. Just as my toes curl when someone addresses me by my full name (a practice confined to my mother when she was trying to find me in order to administer corrective instruction), young people are atavistically scared when faced with that angry dot. To the extent that credible academics, in institutions such as Cambridge University, are now exploring alternative language-coding models for the social media generation.

And so I began to wonder about the potential application of offensive punctuation.

We all know that the enthusiastic use of apostrophe’s can cause serious injury, especially when wielded bluntly by amateur signwriter’s. Commas, particularly, can breed prolifically, if allowed to do so, and pop up in sentences without warning, creating pratfalls to trip the unwary, with endless potential for terminal confusion.

The real stealth fighters, however, are the colons and semi-colons. Used mainly for subordinate clauses and their poorer relatives, the Lists, these seemingly insignificant little dots and commas are more ubiquitous than they should be: they can be silent and deadly; loud and obvious; or far too numerous. Most of us do not notice these little blighters until it is too late and we have already understood the sentence. This is not fighting fair.

The question mark is not a problem, it has a real job to do, and cannot successfully be replaced with anything else, can it? That is, really, the question.

And quote marks are useful in preventing lawsuits. As long as they are ‘single quotes’ and not “double quotes”, which bring a raft of problems of their own. Debates about when to use one or the other can become quite deadly, especially as the double quotes fight in pairs.

The dash is the lazy person’s answer to punctuation – it is nicely ambiguous and can mean anything. It can replace the parenthesis, comma, stop – you name it, it does the job.

And finally, of course, there is the ellipsis…….

I am quite surprised that no-one has curated a collection of battle-punctuation, or at the very least done a study of punctuation in applied warfare. If the humble dot can bring an entire generation of youngsters to heel, imagine what we could do with a nicely-aimed set of hyphens, or strategically-deployed curly brackets.

The one diacritical mark that no-one seems to have any fear of, is the exclamation point. Studies have shown amongst our rising generation that any sentence ending with ! … is good, happy and positive. But with all things good, happy and positive, it needs to be strictly controlled.

Too much happiness (just like too much punctuation) is never a good thing….

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks, Niki. Great Monday afternoon laughing material. I must be very unhappy since I use exclamation marks so sparingly (as advised by many of the style guides I frequently refer to). 🙂

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