Here it is. Here is the final blog in what I am now referring to as The Codswallop Trilogy: A Story of Everyday Full Stops and their Demise in Text Messaging. In Part 1 of the trilogy, posted 1 August 2019 and titled What a load of codswallop, I dismissed the claims of Internet linguist, Gretchen McCulloch, that adding a full stop at the end of a short text message implied offence. I countered by saying the omission was just laziness on the part of the text message sender.
In Part 2, posted 5 August 2019 and titled Is there an antonym for codswallop?, I ate humble pie. Based on intensive interrogations with four text-messaging enthusiasts (my granddaughters), I realised that text messaging was a close substitute for face-to-face communication and that inserting a full stop at the end of a brief message could be and is these days construed as an abrupt end to the discussion. It is as if somewhere during a live discussion with someone, that someone suddenly and peremptorily says, ‘Okay. That’s it. Enough. End of. We’re done!’
The original BBC article that prompted my initial rebuttal also made reference to a research paper published in 2015 by members of the Psychology Department of Binghamton University and I concluded Part 2 of my trilogy by saying that I might follow up with a third part once I’ve read the paper. Today, I read the paper and I have a few remarks.
First, I learnt a new word and a new acronym. The word is prosody. It means the patterns of stress and intonation in a language. It’s a blanket term for what I described in Part 2 as When we speak, we ‘um’ and ‘ah’; create incomplete and, often, grammatically incorrect sentences; punctuation is implied by pauses; and emotion conveyed by the volume, pitch and tone of our voice. It’s good to know that my description can be reduced to one word!
The acronym is CMC. It stands for Computer-Mediated Communication. Wikipedia defines CMC as as ‘any human communication that occurs through the use of two or more electronic devices.’ So, telephone calls, email, text messaging, online forums and chat room, even the dying fax and deceased telegram are all examples of CMC.
Back to the paper. It’s quite short and doesn’t contradict any of my conclusions in Part 2. The authors make the point that ‘texting mimics face-to-face communication and allows rapid reciprocal responses’, unlike email or Facebook-style messaging. As such, the sender needs a way to mimic prosody and adds symbols such as asterisks (‘That’s a crock of s**t), punctuation (! and ? especially), emoticons (created using keyboard symbols :-)), emojis (pictographs 😊), and letter repetition (‘You’re sooo lazy!’) to the message to convey tone and texture. In face-to-face communication, we use gestures, face changes, tone changes, pauses, etc to supplement the intent of the spoken word.
The researchers addressed the basic question of does the receiver interpret the tonal symbols in the way that the sender intended and they restricted their attention to the sentence-terminating full stop (what they called the sentence final period). Their result is nicely summarized in the extract from the BBC’s article:
A 2015 study by Binghamton University involving 126 undergraduates found they perceived text messages ending in a full stop as being less sincere than the same message without a full stop.
Incidentally, the Binghamton University researchers referenced an earlier article on this topic. The article, authored by Ben Crair, was published in The New Republic in 2013 and had the glorious title The Period is Pissed (no terminating full stop). Crair’s paper was based on observation, not experiment, but he claimed that:
The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it’s started getting angry. I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats, where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce ‘I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.’ … ‘No.’ shuts down the conversation; ‘No … ’ allows it to continue.
Insincere, abrupt, offensive, rude – does it matter what property we ascribe to the poor old pissed-off sentence-terminating full stop? Probably not. It does appear that its use in text messaging is not recommended however. But, hey, it’s been around since the 3rd century BC following its introduction by Aristophanes of Byzantium, who called it the periodos, and is still required for anything that contains more than one sentence so let us not gather around the burial vault yet otherwise we would end up with very long sentences like this one is turning out to be with no end in sight because we have decided to get rid of the full stop altogether and thus have no way of terminating a sentence in order to start a new sentence and allow the reader to catch his or her breath while we move on from one topic to the next and did I mention…
BTW, I looked online for an appropriate full-stop/period joke. I couldn’t find one but this one raised a smile:
“Why do sperm cells look like commas and apostrophes?”
“Because they often interrupt periods and lead to contractions.”