The Period is Not an Angry Punctuation Mark

punctuation

The New Republic has an interesting story about the punctuation mark the period. Author Ben Crair points out that the period often is interpreted as “aggressive” when used in electronic communication.

Via The New Republic:

In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email. How and why did the period get so pissed off?

Crair’s story explains a phenomenon I had not fully comprehended until now.

I’ll share two stories.

Years ago, back when I worked in an office, my supervisor called me in for my annual review. During the review he said I was doing a great job, blah-blah-blah, and then he pointed out an area of weakness. “There’s something about the tone of your emails,” he said. “They’re terse. Me? I understand what you’re saying, and I’m not offended, but someone else could get the wrong idea. Watch your tone.”

Offended? Wrong idea? Terse? I’m a nice guy. I don’t think I’ve had a cross word with anyone since grade school. What did he mean by terse?

I reviewed my emails, and I discovered something obvious. I communicate with people the way I want them to communicate with me. I am a writer and editor, and time is important, and I don’t like to waste mine or anyone else’s. My emails to my boss and coworkers were short and direct and, I should note, courteous. I wrote clear, declarative sentences with little in the way of needless chitchat, ellipses, emoticons, exclamation points or other valueless information. I asked direct questions.

Terse?

I didn’t see terse.

I saw efficient.

As a freelancer something similar happened. I was the section editor of a website. One day my supervisor called me and chewed me out for being too “harsh” with our freelancers. I was stunned. As a freelancer myself, I thought I understood my people well enough to communicate with them.

The editor said that one of the writers (whom I will add was not a professional journalist) had forwarded him some of our correspondence, and the tone (there’s that word again) concerned my editor. I asked my supervisor if he disagreed with the substance of what I communicated. He said no. I asked him what the problem was. He told me I need to massage the feelings of freelance writers. I told the editor that once I have a professional relationship with someone, I communicate directly and clearly with them, in the interest of saving all parties time, of which I had precious little. He asked me to be more diplomatic.

I reviewed my emails again, and I didn’t see harsh. I saw frank.

In both of these instances, I adjusted to my boss’s requests. I learned what a compliment sandwich was, and I made a lot of them.

Thanks to Ben Crair’s article in The New Republic, I understand what the problem was. Some people interpret clear, direct sentences differently than I do. Where I see efficiency, clarity, directness and frankness, all of which are neutral properties, others see aggressiveness and anger, which are negative.

But Crair’s article, which I think does a service by raising this issue, does not answer the key question of, “Why?”

Why do people see the period as aggressive?

This is the closest the article comes to answering this question:

“In the world of texting and IMing … the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.’”

I think this is a plausible explanation, but it doesn’t go far enough.

I’ll offer this theory, based on my own experiences.

As a reader of digital communication, if you have low self-esteem or you are not competent, you are more likely to read a neutral statement as negative because you believe people are negative towards you, or because if you stink at your job they probably are.

My communication style has never been called into question by the better editors, writers and publishers with whom I have worked, none of whom complained about my tone and most of whom were happy to recommend me for other jobs.

Tone is in the eye of the beholder.

There is a certain segment of the population that is offended by the cool, clear, declarative power of the period and even by completed thoughts. Why is this suddenly an issue? Thanks to digital communication, there are more opportunities to communicate than ever and thus more chances to “offend.”

The period has been a boon to written communication and to mankind, the backbone of many great documents, speeches and quotes; it is a friend of science, art and civilization. Let’s not sacrifice the period at the altar of sensitivity.

I learned to make compliment sandwiches.

If you’re offended by those who dare to complete their thoughts, please keep in mind that directness is not aggressiveness.

Get over it.

Joe Donatelli is the author of The Marching Band Refused to Yield: The True Story of the Time the Ohio University Alumni Band Fought the Miami of Ohio Football team.

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • AldenWicker

    I love this. I have been reprimanded for the tone of my emails, too. And as a woman, I find that instead of using ellipses (ugh, they drive me crazy) I have to resort to exclamations everywhere. Instead of, “Just let me know when you’re ready.” I have to say, “Just let me know when you’re ready!” The first sounds annoyed, the second sounds chipper and excited. This is why I actually didn’t mind emailing with “the tech guys,” at my old job. I could just tell them succinctly what I was looking for. But the women? I had to hedge everything with, “If you wouldn’t mind, I would love it if you could please …”

  • Gay Gasser

    Ha! I was in sales for years and found that most people want a bit more than ‘just the facts’. I would make the meat of the email short and sweet, sign my name and add a ps with something chatty.
    Pat-
    The test came back positive.
    Gay

    ps. There is a squirrel break dancing on my window sill.

  • Cora Feorstner

    Joe, I love your tone. A couple of days ago, my daughter and I discussed a mutual friend who uses an ellipsis to end a text or IM. We decided she didn’t understand how and when to use of an ellipsis. I had no idea this was a “thing.” Apparently she’s chatty, and I’m terse. :)

  • Kim

    “My communication style has never been called into question by the better
    editors, writers and publishers with whom I have worked…” well, that says it all, Joe.

  • Scott K. Andrews

    You nail it perfectly. I was once, in all seriousness, accused of ’email terrorism’ by a senior colleague who had a problem with my concise use of language. It’s one of the reasons I started outing myself as an author at my day jobs, so people would roll their eyes indulgently at my grammatically correct, punctuated emails rather than taking umbrage.

  • Anton Angelo

    I just went through my chat logs, and sure’nuff, there it is. Correspondents under 30, not a full stop to be seen, apart from Trying.To.Make.A.Stompy.Point. Which really emphasises it… (I’ve always been a sucker for ellipsis). My personal take on it however, is to now moderate my writing and now not use full stops in texts or IMs. Its not to try to appear down with the kids, yo!, but to communicate effectively in the medium, and use the correct register.

    The original article also had a point about an ‘irony mark’. Until recently I thought that had finally been filled by :P – the tongue sticking out smiley. After getting a few of these, and taking umbrage, I now find that it has morphed from a disrespectful raspberry (with middle finger lifted), to a cutesy saccharine smiley: more of a kitten who has forgotten to retract its tongue kind of thing. I’m most disappointed.

  • alex

    i hate all of you haters online !!

  • alex

    just kidding !! Im sorry

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