Young people are 'intimidated' by full stops in text messages - here’s the psychology explained

Monday, 24th August 2020, 12:25 pm
Updated Monday, 24th August 2020, 12:25 pm
(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

As social media and instant messaging become ever more ubiquitous, the way we're communicating is changing.

New words regularly crop up to define new online phenomena, and even the way we use punctuation is constantly evolving.

Take, for instance, the humble full stop. Years ago it was simply the signifier of the end of a sentence - an instruction to take a breath and pause before ingesting the next line of information.

But, in the internet age, the punctuation mark could actually be having an adverse effect on youngsters.

Are full stops a bad thing?

That's according to linguistics experts studying the effect of technology on the way we use language.

"If you send a text message without a full stop, it's already obvious that you've concluded the message," said Dr Lauren Fonteyn, an assistant professor at the Netherlands' Leiden University studying language change.

In fact, because we’ve grown so used to communicating without full stops, choosing to use one could actually be causing younger people (who have grown up with a less universal use of the punctuation mark) distress.

"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," said Dr Fonteyn.

This thinking might not even be that new.

In 2015, leading language expert Professor David Crystal published the book Making a Point, in which he explained that the full stop has become an “emotion marker” used to signify anger or annoyance.

Prof Crystal said "people simply do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point."

In a 2016 Washington Post story titled Stop. Using. Periods. Period., economics writer Jeff Guo concluded that the line break is now the default method of punctuation in texting. Full stops, he said, can cause the message to be perceived as "cold, angry or passive-aggressive."

Is the full stop redundant?

According to a report by The Telegraph, linguists continue to debate the relevance of the punctuation mark in our technological world.

Many argue that it's no longer needed in many contexts, as a text is ended in the action of sending it, not by including a full stop.

Owen McArdle, a linguist at the ­University of Cambridge, said it all depends on context.

“I’m not sure I agree about emails. I guess it ­depends how formal they are,” he commented.

McArdle agreed that the punctuation points "have a new role in signifying an abrupt or angry tone of voice", and said full stops are now "very much the exception and not the norm in [young people’s] instant messages."

How can I make my messages more friendly?

The opposite of an abrupt, brusque full stop? The much more light-hearted exclamation mark!

That's according to 2015 research conducted by New York's Binghamton University, which found that exclamation marks served the opposite purpose of full stops, and could even make their senders seem sincere and engaged.

People "easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses and so on," research lead 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.”