Punctuation Will Tear Us Apart

(With apologies to Joy Division)

Well, who would have thought that full stops and exclamation marks would ever play a significant part in our relationships?

Apostrophes, maybe. That tiny mark which hovers at the top of or between characters provokes heated reactions. We can become a bit judgy, or a bit defensive when our reactions to where this punctuation mark is placed shape our perceptions about the writer’s class, age, level of education, outdated ideas, elitism, pedantry… For a sign which is hardly more than a dot, the apostrophe punches way above its weight.

Full stop furore

Now the full stop has entered the fray. In traditional written communication, on the whole, this punctuation mark continues to enjoy its blameless function, which usually is to denote the end of a sentence. In text messaging, though, it has come to be viewed as conveying a negative or passive-aggressive message. In the more casual, freer, loose-limbed linguistic ambience of texting, full stops can be seen as redundant, and their deliberate usage interpreted as hostile.

So, if in answer to the message ‘Are you okay?’ you reply ‘Yes. Fine thanks.’ your reply may be viewed as angry. You’re saying you’re fine, but your full stops say the opposite. It’s a bit tough if you meant your message to be read at face value, and had no idea that it would be interpreted differently. It’s particularly tough if you were taught that when a single word functions as a complete sentence it should be punctuated as such — but times have moved on.

When it’s common practice to spill words on to a screen without punctuation marks, your choice to use them comes under scrutiny, and is subject to interpretation which often assumes the worst.

Dots of discontent

Another villain in the punctuation wars is the ellipsis, those three dots you might use at the end of a sentence…

The dots indicate something unfinished, that there is more to be said. Sometimes their meaning is clear. ‘Looking forward to chatting over a drink this evening…’ anticipates enjoyable further communication. But if the meaning isn’t clear, the reader has to fill in the blanks, and will often assume that the dots indicate — yes, you’ve got it, hostility or passive-aggression.

Screamer shocker

An unlikely hero has emerged — the exclamation mark. Oh no! Apparently it shows friendliness and sincerity.

Eh? The ‘screamer’, as the printing world dubbed it, may seem to be the opposite of that, with its over-friendly ‘look-at-me’ and ‘you’re supposed to find this funny/remarkable/shocking’ vibe. But there it is.

The difficult thing is that the rapid changes in how we communicate mean that we are using the written word much more than in previous decades, but we are using words in a context which is constantly changing and evolving.

It’s easy to get things wrong with an ambiguous phrase, a dodgy full stop, a forgotten x at the end of a message. With the plethora of textual aids at our fingertips — emojis, memes, abbreviations, playful misspellings and so on — you would think that meaning and tone would always be clear. But they’re not.

This is where old-school face-to-face, person-to-person communication comes to the rescue. Whether you are the sender of a message which you think has been misconstrued, or the receiver of one which you think is off in some way, you need to check out if your feelings are justified. Don’t do this via a series of text exchanges. Do it with a phone call, or an in-person conversation.

Ways to open the conversation include:

  • ‘I got your text. Can I check something with you?’
  • ‘I’ve read your message. Have I got things wrong, or are you mad at me for something/about this?’
  • ‘I’m concerned that my meaning wasn’t clear. What I hoped to indicate was…’

  • Don’t blame the other person. Expressions like ‘That’s a stupid thing to think’ or ‘Didn’t you realise how it came across?’ are confrontational and not likely to build bridges.
  • Don’t rely purely on words — that’s what caused the trouble in the first place.
  • Use non-combative body language. Stand or sit at an angle to the other person. Keep your limbs and hands loose and relaxed so that you convey an impression of openness. Lean slightly towards the other person, to indicate your commitment to the conversation, but don’t crowd them.
  • If you’re doing this on the phone, adopt the same body positions as if you were face-to-face. If you get all wound up as you talk, it will come across in your voice.
  • Make your facial expression match your words and your meaning. If you’re concerned, look concerned. If you’re angry or upset, don’t smile.
  • Use all the communicative modes that are easier in real life. As the conversation continues, you can smile, nod, shake your head, laugh, go back on something you said earlier. Check that you understand and that you are being understood.

Try not to overthink the underlying meaning of text messages. There might not be one. If you find that you are very ready to read latent hostility in someone’s messages, act on what that is telling you about yourself and your relationship with the other person.

You might need reassurance that things are okay between you, or you might look for confirmation that it’s not a hunky-dory situation. Have a conversation, or more than one. You don’t even have to mention the offensive punctuation. In fact, it might be better not to. Calling us to account for the way we punctuate personal messages misses the point somehow (ha).

People have always played with language forms, including how we use punctuation. There’s something rather nice about endowing diacritical marks with emotional heft, as long as this evolves in a context of exploration and engagement, and not as a weapon to destroy what is most important, our relationships with the others in our lives.

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