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Is Your Punctuation Sending the Wrong Message? 

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What are your thoughts on punctuation?

I’m a bit of a punctuation nerd. I enjoy wielding my understanding of the English language (gained through copyediting classes and years of practice) in all of my writing, including text messaging. So I was surprised to learn that a recent study found that many young people currently believe a period at the end of a sentence is insincere, unfriendly or abrupt. According to an article in the Daily Mail:

Full stops intimidate young people when used in social media communication as they are interpreted as a sign of anger, according to linguistic experts.

Teenagers and those in their early twenties, classified as Generation Z, have grown up with smartphones which they use to send short messages without full stops.

And a study from Binghamton University in New York suggested that people who finish messages with full stops are perceived as insincere.

This is completely new information to me. (I think my generation gap is showing.) For all I know, I have for years been sending the wrong impression to younger friends by using those angry periods at the ends of my sentences. According to linguists, members of Generation Z “break up their thoughts by sending each one as a separate message.” They view punctuation as redundant because sending the message ends the thought.

So while I simply took my non-digital writing skills to the digital places such as text messaging, a person raised in an all-digital world uses the medium in a separate way. Punctuation creates a “tone” that is generally reserved for expressing irritation.

Another interesting revelation from this study is that not all punctuation is created equal. Commenting on the study, Dave Urbansky writes:

In regard to the SUNY Binghamton study, which surveyed 126 undergraduates, research found that text messages ending in periods were perceived as less sincere while those ending in exclamation points were seen as heartfelt or more profound, the outlet said.

I imagine that’s why I’ve noticed a rising number of exclamation points in my digital communications. At some point during my journalistic training, the following Mark Twain quote was drilled into me: “One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke.”

Ever since then, I have avoided using exclamation points unless thoroughly warranted. I actually feel a bit annoyed that these youngsters view them as “heartfelt” and “profound.” A big part of me does not want to even consider giving in to this nonsense.

But a quick search of what the Bible says about communication leads to Colossians 4:6, which says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” I know when the Apostle Paul penned these words, he could hardly imagine a world where words shot digitally through phones across miles. But a few principles apply.

First, “Let your speech always be gracious.” This applies to in-person conversation as well as digital communication. Second, “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” God didn’t create us to be cookie-cutter people. Every generation has its own distinctives. And yet Scripture charges us to think about communication as an individual thing and consider how our words (and punctuation) are coming across to others.

I suppose that’s a good enough reason to reassess my use of punctuation in messaging — at least with those 21 and under!!!

What are your thoughts on punctuation? Do you use punctuation differently on digital platforms than in other forms of communication? How do you adapt your writing when communicating to different audiences, especially different generations?

Copyright 2020 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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