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Thoughts

The Passive-aggressive Period

— Culture & Observations —

A while back I chanced upon a Thrillist article titled “Why You Should Never End a Text Message with a Period.” In it, the author discussed a Binghamton University study which determined that the use — or omission — of a period in a brief text message can actually alter the recipient’s interpretation.

Consider:

Are you mad at me?

No

vs.

Are you mad at me?

No.

According to the study, while grammatically correct, the “No.” response can come across as just a little harsh — testy, even. In uses like this the period is often interpreted, consciously or not, as digital shorthand for a sharp tone. This issue could stem from the period’s perceived finality, paired with texting’s complete lack of verbal cues. Since it conveys neither excitement (!) nor a question (?), it solely coveys conclusion, as in, “No (and I don’t want to talk about it).”

In truth, the reasons here don’t matter nearly as much as the underlying reality. Writing is always open to interpretation, and that interpretation is driven by emotion, culture, medium, circumstance — and not necessarily dictated by the rules of grammar. Which is why I found the comments on the Thrillist article so fascinating. The author was absolutely deluged with accusations of being an idiot — and the same for anyone who would dare interpret a properly punctuated text-message as anything other than the sign of great intellect and respect for the rules of god and humanity. References to “lazy millennials” and statements like “good grammar is always right” abounded, nicely summarized by one commenter’s assertion that, “I may not be cool, but at least I’m correct.”

Yes, by using good punctuation and grammar you’re correct. But are you communicating? Fears of the downfall of civilization aside, if your message is open to misinterpretation, doesn’t that potentially diffuse your entire purpose of writing the message in the first place? Unless your goal is to say, “look at me, I’m using good grammar and you should learn from my example,” then maybe customizing your methods to suit the audience isn’t such a grave sin after all.

Whether in advertising, blogging or personal communications, the ability to clearly and concisely impart meaning should always rule the day. Sometimes this means good grammar. And sometimes it means sentence fragments, split infinitives, and inconsistent use of the Oxford comma.

Gerard Heidgerken
Posted by Gerard Heidgerken