Are your WhatsApp conversations getting tenser? Pay close attention to your punctuation…
Updated on 24 August: Look, we’ve all done it at least once. Someone’s messaged us saying something we’re not necessarily on board with, so we type out a stark little reply – one that’s carefully polite to the point of frosty.
“That’s fine, thanks”
Then, not quite satisfied with the tone of our response, we decide to up the ante with… a full stop or two.
“That’s fine. Thanks.”
I’m willing to bet that reading that message made your blood run cold, didn’t it? Because, with the addition of those two periods, the entire meaning of the sentence has been changed. And we all know it, even if we’ll never admit it.
In the world of WhatsApp, the presence of a full stop seemingly indicates hostility and barely-restrained rage.
Don’t believe me? Then consider this exchange:
Is that OK with you?
Is that OK with you?
That full stop is so much more than a full stop. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a cry for help. It’s a reminder that they have feelings, and you have trodden all over them. That actually, no, everything is not OK with them.
It’s not just me who thinks so, either. Indeed, linguistics experts have now confirmed that, in the largely punctuation-free world of informal text messaging, an unexpected full stop can seem deliberate, as if showing that something negative is meant by the message, say linguists.
As per The Evening Standard, Leiden University’s Dr Lauren Fonteyn tweeted: “If you send a text message without a full stop, it’s already obvious that you’ve concluded the message.
“So 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.”
As reported on 21 April: linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who wrote the book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, has also issued a warning that ending a sentence with a full stop is rude and aggressive.
“If a person uses a full stop all the time, it’s fine,” she said. “But if a person that doesn’t usually end their sentences with a full stop uses one, then it’s fair for someone to conclude that perhaps that person is mad at you.”
McCulloch added (via The Telegraph): “Because the minimum thing necessary to send is the message itself, anything additional you include can take on an additional interpretation.”
Essentially, a full stop forces a formal element upon a normally formless space where anything goes.
Yes, you probably have your pal who always writes in grammatically correct sentences. Her full stops may still shake you, but you know in your heart that they’re just part of who she is. When the person who never uses full stops, though, suddenly starts peppering their messages with them, it’s a passive-aggressive move.
Or, to put it more bluntly, they’re angry and want you to know they’re angry, but they’re not in the mood for a direct confrontation.
Of course, that’s the genius of the full stop. Nobody can call you out on it, because it’s just… well, it’s just good grammar. And you can’t call them out when they flip the tables round to you, because then the whole charade would tumble down around us like a house of cards.
There’s no denying, though, that the full stop situation feels so much worse during lockdown.
Throughout the country, people are voluntarily or involuntarily staying indoors in a bid to flatten the coronavirus curve. This means that we’re talking to our friends, family, and colleagues more than ever using virtual means… and so, when they annoy us, we can’t let out a barely-audible sigh, or raise an eyebrow, or have a proper conversation with them about our feelings.
Instead, we’re reduced to pass-agg punctuation. And it’s driving me round the bend. Speaking from a purely anecdotal POV, I’ve had more than a few cold wars declared via my smartphone over the past few weeks. There’s been the odd “Alright.” flung my way, as well as a rogue “K.” or two.
Worse still, I’ve stupidly moaned to a mutual friend about someone not thanking me for a gift I sent, only to then receive a “Thanks. You shouldn’t have.” from the person in question. Can’t call them out on that, now, can I? Because, if I do, I’ll be forced to admit I criticised them in the first place, and then we’ll have to clear the air with an actual argument.
I’m not saying we should ban full stops from all WhatsApp and text messages for the remainder of lockdown (although I’m up for it, if we can make it happen). I’m just saying that emotions are running high, we’re all feeling mentally fatigued, and we really don’t need the drama.
Throw in the fact that research from Binghamton University suggests that we should swap full stops for exclamation marks – because they indicate friendliness and sincerity, apparently – and you have one hell of a case for avoiding that dreaded little dot.
With that in mind, maybe just reach out and tell people when you’re mad at them, so you can have a proper conversation about it. Otherwise please, for the love of all that is good and holy, step away from the full stop, the ‘K’ and the dreaded ellipses.
Why? Well, because you’re a good person, in spite of your terrible taste in punctuation, and you don’t want to ruin someone else’s lockdown day by giving them something new and wholly ridiculous to fret over.