The end of the full stop?

| August 29, 2016 | 0 Comments

The full stop, known in some countries as the period and deemed to be one of the most universal punctuation marks, dating back to before the Middle Ages, may become redundant as the digital age advances.

This is the opinion of David Crystal, the British linguist, academic and author, who has written more than 100 books on language and is a former master consultant on the subject of original pronunciation at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, UK.

Crystal says that digital device users now favour “staccato sentencing” to get the message across sooner. “We are at a momentous moment in the history of the full stop,” opined Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, at the 2016 Hay Festival in Wales. This annual festival celebrates great writing from poets and scientists, lyricists and comedians, novelists and environmentalists.

Crystal pointed out that the full stop has mostly become redundant when sending a message via a smartphone. When it is used, however, it has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Crystal, whose books include Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (St Martin’s Press, 2015), the full stop is now used to indicate negative emotions such as irony, sarcasm, insincerity and aggression. Using the example of a loved one forgetting a candlelit dinner, Crystal said at the festival that one is best advised to include a full stop when responding “Fine.” to show annoyance.

““Fine” or “Fine!”, in contrast, could denote acquiescence or blithe acceptance.

“The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts,” Crystal said. “In the 1990s, the internet created an ethos of linguistic free love, where breaking the rules was encouraged and punctuation was one of the ways this could be done.”

Crystal’s research into the new semantic power of the period (he analyses students’ text messages) has been taken up by researchers at Binghamton University in New York and Rutgers University in New Jersey in the US. Most students asked to supply a one-word positive digital response did not put a full stop after “Okay”, “Sure”, “Yeah” or “Yup”.) Those messages preceding a period were deemed more sinister.

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter has added to the disappearance of the full stop. Paradoxically, text messages are increasingly decorated with what Crystal calls “spasms of [other kinds of ] over punctuation”.

“If someone texts, ‘Are you coming to the party?’ the response,” he noted, was increasingly, “Yes, fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!” Crystal has also found that teens are abandoning acronyms such as “LOL” (laughing out loud) or “ROTFL” (rolling on the floor laughing) in text messages, because their parents are also using them.

Category: Spring 2016

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