Period coming to a full stop

LONDON • One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying. The period - the full-stop signal we all learn as children, whose use stretches back at least to the Middle Ages - is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age.

So says Mr David Crystal, who has written more than 100 books on language and is a former master of original pronunciation at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London - a man who understands the power of tradition in language.

The conspicuous omission of the period in text messages and in instant messaging on social media, he says, is a product of the punctuation-free staccato sentences favoured by millennials - and increasingly their elders - a trend fuelled by the freewheeling style of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

"We are at a momentous moment in the history of the full stop," Mr Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, said in an interview after he expounded on his view recently at the Hay Festival in Wales.

"In an instant message, it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end, and none will have a full stop," he added. "So why use it?"

In fact, the understated period may have suddenly taken on meanings all its own. Increasingly, says Mr Crystal, the period is being deployed as a weapon to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression.

If the love of your life just cancelled the candlelit, six-course, home-cooked dinner you have prepared, you are best advised to include a period when you respond "Fine." to show annoyance "Fine" or "Fine!" in contrast, could denote acquiescence or blithe acceptance.

Mr Crystal's observations on the fate of the period are driven in part by frequent visits to high schools across Britain, where he analyses students' text messages.

But the shunning of the period, Mr Crystal said, has paradoxically been accompanied by spasms of overpunctuation.

"If someone texts, 'Are you coming to the party?' the response," he noted, was increasingly: "Yes, fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!" But, of course, that exuberance would never be tolerated in a classroom.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Period coming to a full stop'. Print Edition | Subscribe