Have you ever had that sicky-dread feeling of panic after receiving a text or WhatsApp message that ends with a full stop? You know, that stomach dropping moment, when in a millisecond you comb through all of your previous interactions with that person, desperately trying to figure out what you might have done to warrant such a stern reply? Turns out, you're not the only one – and there's a good reason why.
Jennifer Dorman, sociolinguistic expert from the language learning app Babbel, explains it's a phenomenon experienced predominantly by millennials and Gen Z. "Young people, powered by the invention of new technologies, have been driving language and grammar change for quite some time," she says. "A historic example of this would be the invention of the telephone. In 1876, critics of the new device were worried about the 'death of communication as we know it' - and the use of the word ‘hello’ to answer the phone was then regarded as crude or barbaric."
Dorman continues, "The removal of full stops (much like the use of hello) is not an awful end to a communicative era, or a crime against language. It reflects the ever changing nature of language, and how we adapt it to match the communicative tools we have at our fingertips."
As to what has caused us to all drop full stops – turning them from casual endings into abrupt and aggressive statements – it's likely linked to the history of texting, she adds. "When texting first began, there were no full letter keyboards or touch screens and the use of characters was cut down significantly to account for the cost of individual texts. Often, letters would be removed, or abbreviations created, to save both time and money and, if only one-line texts were being sent, it is likely that the full stop was deemed an unnecessary character to include – unless you were making a point."
This change in punctuation use has been seen all over the world too, Dorman says. "In Sweden as well as the U.K, full stops at the end of sentences would be regarded as passive aggressive over text. Turkish people also regard punctuation as semi-optional at the end of sentences when texting, and in Russia it’s common not to use punctuation at all."
In a nutshell: "The full stop is no longer an anticipated ending to a text message, and as such its (unexpected) presence changes its meaning from a humble sentence stopper to a more abrupt, dramatic marker," Dorman notes. "In linguistic terms, this creates a 'markedness' – in other words, a divergence from what we’d usually anticipate seeing. This is why it is unnerving: it feels alien, intentional, and more like a statement than it would in a novel or a book."
It seems the way we text and talk changes as we get older too. "People are more ‘linguistically liberal’ between the ages of 18 – 22, and that as they hit their late 20s and 30s they become more ‘conservative’ with language again, due to a move into the workplace," says Dorman. "This explains why Boomers are less intimidated by full stops, or why your Mum thinks it’s appropriate to send you ‘OK.’ texts, as they were in the conservative stage of language development when all this technology was invented.
"It also means that the millennials and early Gen-Zs amongst us are moving into the conservative stage right now: which means we’ll be just as baffled by the next generation’s use of grammar any day now." Phew! So next time you get that stomach-drop – when your boss messages saying 'See you in five.' – at least you'll know why.
Now, can I have an explanation as to why I freak out if an unsaved number calls, or if the 'new voicemail' sign flashes up?
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