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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