There’s a lovely Ben Crair piece in the New Republic this morning, about how instant messaging and texts are changing our use of punctuation: it seems that a full stop at the end of a chat message can be seen as aggressive or final. So
see you at home later
is happy and friendly, while
see you at home later.
might imply that you will be not only seen but given a stern telling-off.
(Before the prescriptivist death-of-language crowd get involved, by the way, I should say that there’s no indication that these practices are spreading to formal writing. So stand down. Txt spk isn’t ruining everything.)
The author discusses other punctuation marks that carry tone. Exclamation marks, he says, are used to imply sincerity (his example: “I really mean the sentence I just concluded!”), while ellipses are less final and brutal than a full stop, so invite further discussion (compare “No way.” with “No way…”). A question mark on the end of a statement-sentence makes it sound less definite, less cocky, says Crair – although Ryan North, the author of Dinosaur Comics, uses it masterfully to imply the opposite (“UM, I RECOMMEND YOU STAY OUT OF MY WAY???“).
Naturally I’ve done no research into this, but I thought I’d add a couple of my own and see if readers agree. In emails, I think, both ! and … are jokes-and-levity indicators. “Not the first time I’ve done that!” and “Not the first time I’ve done that…” read much more lightheartedly than “Not the first time I’ve done that.” The trouble is, of course, that using any sort of joke-indicator immediately makes the joke not funny, but sometimes you can’t rely on the reader of an email to get your unadorned joke. If I’m really worried that you’ll think I’m serious, I’ll use an exclamation mark; if I’m a bit less worried, but still a bit worried, I’ll downgrade to the ellipsis.
(Please note that if I’ve ever emailed you using an exclamation mark, I don’t think you’re stupid and won’t get jokes. I’m talking about all the other people.)
On a slightly related note are the pun-indicator phrases – “as it were”, “so to speak”. No one ever says either of them unless to point out that they’re being hilarious and/or slightly rude (“A hole in one – as it were!”). I have a suspicion that “literally” is going the same way: for instance, “Rival Chinese doctors nearly came to blows after attempting to, quite literally, win the heart of a terminal patient“. (For more discussion of “literally”, see here.)
But that’s a bit of a digression. The interesting bit about the Crair piece is the difference between instant-messaging-type writing, which, as he says, is a sort of halfway house between writing and speaking – the immediacy and rhythm of speech, but the outward form of writing. It calls for the sort of tonal and emotional subtleties that speech allows – facial expressions, body language, changes in pitch and speed and volume and emphasis – but forces users to find new ways of marking them, hence the rise of emoticons, *emphasis markers*, SHOUTY ALL CAPS and emotional shorthand (“lulz”, etc). Some of this will get co-opted for formal writing, because it’s fun and interesting, but it’s actually designed and used for this almost entirely new 21st-century medium of instant text communication.
Yes, yes, we should teach children not to use this stuff in schoolwork, because it’ll look bad on job applications or Ucas forms or whatever in a world dominated by standard written English. But it’s a new form of communication, and we should celebrate its rise, because it’s interesting. And besides, the language isn’t going to the dogs! OR IS IT????
EDIT to add something I wish I’d included in the original piece: There’s also the use of no punctuation as punctuation. I just wrote in a tweet:
yep I noticed that was kind of hoping that we’d all just skate over it and still say I was the best
…with the punctuation-and-capitalisation-lite writing intended to imply a sort of hurried sheepishness.