We need to talk.
Specifically, we need to discuss using periods at the end of texts and instant messages.
Even though many of us use periods all day, every day as we write emails, reports or articles, for some reason, adding that little dot at the end of a text message shifts the meaning from “this sentence is over” to “maybe this friendship is over.” But how could something so simple seem so passive aggressive? To find out, we spoke with Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and the author of the New York Times bestselling book Because Internet.
Why do we use periods at all?
When it comes to periods at the end of text messages, McCulloch wants us to take a step back and think about how we break up two different statements or utterances. In a chat-based format—whether that’s in texts, Slack or another type of instant message—most people do this by sending a new message for each sentence, phrase or utterance. But in paper-based communication, the default way of separating thoughts or utterances is with a period, or the odd comma.
“We don’t always necessarily talk in complete sentences—we talk in utterances,” McCulloch says. “So in casual writing, we’re always looking for ways of breaking up utterances that aren’t as necessarily ‘final’ as a period.” Some people use dashes—others are a fan of the mysterious ellipsis at the end of a thought…
When punctuation comes with an emotion
When we end individual text messages by starting a new message, there’s no additional emotion attached, McCulloch explains. “Because you have to send the message in order for the person to get the message, the act of sending it doesn’t have any meaning beyond ‘I sent it,’” she says.
As a result, when we end texts with periods—whether or not we realise or intend it—it adds some emotional meaning. The period doesn’t have the same emotional clout when we’re writing on paper; in that case, it’s just the default way of breaking up different sentences. But in text messages, periods take on additional connotations, McCulloch says, “because anytime you do something that’s not the default, people have a tendency to interpret that as [meaningful].”
In the case of the period at the end of a text message, then, we tend to interpret the punctuation as conveying seriousness, formality or a lowering of the pitch of your voice. “So where the aggression, or passive aggressiveness, comes from is when that seriousness clashes with the message that’s being said,” McCulloch explains. She offers the example of sending a text that says “I feel awful.” Using a period at the end of that message reinforces the fact that you feel awful. Or if you text someone saying “I just don’t know.” By ending that message with a period, it lets the person know that you’re really sad and genuinely at a loss.
The passive aggression comes in, McCulloch says, when you’re saying something in a text message that’s usually positive, and then you put this “seriousness marker” — the period — at the end of it. Take the following texts:
According to McCulloch, the message that ends with the exclamation mark conveys that the person sending the message is excited about addressing the recipient. The message without any punctuation is neutral. But ending that message with a period takes the “seriousness marker” and sticks it on a word that’s usually thought of as a positive, friendly greeting. This may cause us to interpret the message as being passive aggressive.
Why do our brains do this to us? What’s the use of this unnecessary anxiety? McCulloch says that the confusion comes when we use periods on single-utterance messages that don’t require periods to perform that function. (For example, the “Hey” texts above.) In these cases, we have the option of ending the message with something that communicates excitement or positivity (like an exclamation mark!) or just leaving the punctuation off completely, rendering it neutral. Deliberately choosing to end texts with a period when one isn’t otherwise required “is where people get these ‘feelings’ in certain circumstances, that a period is passive aggressive,” McCulloch says.
At the same time, McCulloch says that ending a text with a period isn’t always passive aggressive—it really depends on the context. For example, if you’re sending a multi-sentence message, the periods are neutral, because they are being used to separate the sentences. Also, some people always end texts with periods out of habit, and mean nothing by it. In other words, there is no hard-and-fast rule that periods at the end of texts are in any way hostile.
So does this mean we should be overly cautious and conscious about our use of periods at the end of texts and instant messages? Not necessarily. We already have plenty to worry about. Thanks.