Experts Say That Periods in Text Messages Come Across as 'Standoffish,' 'Insincere'

I’m old enough to remember the days before text messaging. I actually worked in the cellular industry when text messaging first came out. Our managers told us that what they called short messaging was all the rage in Europe and that it would soon take us by storm. At first text messaging was expensive and difficult with the old T9 keypads.

But the cellular industry and phone manufacturers wised up and developed QWERTY keyboards for phones – and eventually smart phones, of course – and made messaging plans free. These days it seems as though we can’t live without our text messages. Our iPhones and Android devices make it easier than ever to send a message; I can send messages from my Macbook even more quickly.

The convenience and ubiquity of texting should make it easier to compose a message that reads like an actual sentence rather than as a secret code, right? Not so fast. A recent study reveals that many people see proper grammar and punctuation in text messaging as classic jerk behavior.

And who is public enemy number one to these folks? The period.

Because text messaging is a conversation that involves a lot of back-and-forth, people add fillers as a way to mimic spoken language. We see this with the increased use of ellipses, which can invite the recipient to continue the conversation. The period is the opposite of that – a definitive stop that signals, as linguistics professor Mark Liberman has explained, “This is final, this is the end of the discussion.”

For some, this can appear angry or standoffish.

You read that right: a period that actually ends the sentence makes you sound like you’re ending the sentence. And for some reason, ending a sentence comes across as “angry or standoffish.” (Now I’ll have to admit, I do love me some ellipses…)

Oddly enough, however, the equation of the period with anger and jerkiness doesn’t translate to other forms of communication.

Earlier this year, psychologist Danielle Gunraj tested how people perceived one-sentence text messages that used a period at the end of the sentence. Participants thought these text messages were more insincere than those that didn’t have a period. But when the researchers then tested the same messages in handwritten notes, they found that the use of a period didn’t influence how the messages were perceived.

Others argue – in studies going back nearly a decade – that the very act of sending a text message denotes the end of a sentence, which renders the poor period unnecessary in such cases. That’s a point I’ll buy far more easily than the “you sound mad” argument.

But wait: there’s more. Some linguists are now calling out grammar and punctuation enthusiasts for being insincere in their messaging. Yes, grammar nerd, your periods are insincere because they’re so formal. Earlier this summer, the Washington Post even advocated getting rid of the period altogether because our text messages possess “some of the same exuberant, associative, overlapping qualities of say, an e. e. cummings poem.” (And they wonder why the newspaper industry is dying.)

Communications scholar Erika Darics and linguist Deborah Tannen have attempted to make a case that informal language, shot through with overused exclamation points and useless repeated letters, actually sounds more sincere than well-thought, well-written texts:

[R]epeated exclamation points in a message can convey a sincere tone, like in the following text message:

JACKIE I AM SO SO SO SORRY! I thought you were behind us in the cab and then I saw you weren’t!!!!! I feel soooooooo bad! Catch another cab and ill pay for it for youuuuu

Note that this message does not contain a message-final period, since that may convey insincerity that would contradict the apology being presented. Instead, the sender uses the non-standard long vowels in “soooooooo” and “youuuuu” as well as five exclamation points at the end of one sentence.

Compare this to a standardized version of the text message:

Jackie, I am so sorry. I thought you were behind us in the cab and then I saw you weren’t. I feel so bad! Catch another cab and I’ll pay for it for you.

This more formal version, according to the arguments made by Tannen and Darics, reads more like a work email sent to a colleague than one to a friend sincerely and fervently apologizing for a transportation mishap.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but using formal language may undermine the sincerity of the apology; in order to convey the “right” message, it’s important to know the proper protocols. This may explain why some people’s text messages seem stilted or awkward: they’re used to writing with a formal style that doesn’t translate to the casual medium.

So the point of these studies and surveys boils down to the notion that, unless you text like a 14-year-old girl, your messages come across as “angry,” “standoffish,” “insincere,” and even “stilted and awkward.” Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that our willingness as a society to embrace bad grammar, poor spelling (intentional and accidental), and improper punctuation in our text messaging is contributing to good writing becoming a lost art. And that’s a shame in so many ways.

Let me put it this way: you can take the periods out of my texts when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Kostenko Maxim