The most exciting piece of punctuation is the period. It marks strong assertions of fact or opinion and gives the reader a pause to digest them and decide whether to affirm, deny, or leave them hanging till later evidence comes in, from the following sentences or other sources. We could use a lot more sentences with periods these days.
I do not recall when exactly it was, but sometime in the age of the internet exclamation points, sometimes multiple exclamation points, became necessary appendages to any message. The lack of such exclamation points was taken as some sort of a sign of hostility.
“Sure, I’ll meet you at 3 P.M. at Caribou.”
“What? Aren’t you excited about it?!!!?”
“No, I’m looking forward to it.”
“You just don’t seem excited!!!”
“Oh, no, I’m very excited!”
“Really?!? One exclamation mark?!?”
I have long held to a rule given me by a teacher that one is allowed one exclamation mark in any piece of formal writing (unless one wants to do a literary impression of Tom Wolfe’s journalism). Yet because of the pressure I soon found myself writing things like “Bacon club sandwich!!!!” and “That sounds fine!!” in conversations where there was no exclaiming necessary or even emotionally possible. I have been attempting to cut back on this, but being a people-pleaser I still have too many exclamation marks.
Now there is a new threat to those of us who use periods. Someone named Victoria Turk has written a book on digital etiquette titled Kill Reply All, in which she asserts, “Only old people or troubled souls put periods at the end of every sentence.” I found this out in an article titled, “Young people no longer trust anyone who uses this punctuation mark.” Apparently, people under thirty, in whom, along with princes, one should never put one’s trust, are telling people that a period is somehow an act of digital violence—a sign that one is “cross” or “annoyed.” “Older people—do you realize that ending a sentence with a full stop comes across as sort of abrupt and unfriendly to younger people in an email/chat? Genuinely curious,” wrote another journalist in a tweet that she wisely deleted.
Abrupt? Unfriendly? Instead of demanding that we “old” or “troubled souls” crank out more exclamation points, we are now expected to simply leave off with the last word flapping at the end of the message.
The answer, my friend, is apparently actually blowing in the wind.
Ms. Turk does inform us that we are allowed to use periods to create comic emphasis in sentences like the following: “Just. Look. How. Emphatic. This. Is.”
The problem is that this gambit is not always that funny unless Ms. Turk’s sentence is used. In fact, it is deployed, especially on social media, mostly in non-comedic ways and usually strikes me as just as bogus as the use of multiple exclamation marks when giving one’s lunch order. Whereas the use of the exclamation marks in all situations looks like a hysterical attempt at enthusiasm, the period-after-every-word gambit looks like the corollary to pounding one’s fist on the podium when giving one’s weakest point: an attempt to assert authority that cannot be gained by any rational means. If you have to resort to sentences that read, “Wear. A. Damn. Mask.” You. Don’t. Have. Much. Of. A. Case.
I think that last line is somewhat funny, but that is only because of the context I’ve created for it. If you disagree, I promise that it was a one-time rhetorical usage.
The general non-use of periods or ending punctuation at all is defended based on the idea that young people think that sending a text or message is itself a signal that one has attained to a complete thought. How they can think that is a mystery since my sons accidentally hit send all the time, leaving me confused as to what they are talking about.
“Come pick me up at”
“Oh sorry Como”
“Oh sorry by the zoo”
Anybody who thinks the very act of sending a message indicates the thought is complete is also vulnerable to believing that saying words and stopping means one has made sense. If you believe that, I’ve got a ton of Joe Biden videos to… oh, you know the thing.
This erasure of the ordinary use of the period is a kind of giant leap forward in the destruction of civilization. Some smart-aleck will probably inform me that as a person pushing classical education, I should know that ancient Greek and Latin documents did not use much punctuation. True. They often did not have spaces between words either, but
Perhaps you are a young and troubled soul?
Yes, many ancient languages did not have punctuation. But Greek playwrights starting using some rudimentary punctuation by the fifth century B.C. to denote places for the actors to pause during their lines, and Aristophanes of Byzantium developed a full-blown punctuation system by the second century B.C. When the modern system, largely developed during the Renaissance, came about, it was embraced because the system allowed writers to indicate not only places to pause but also to convey meaning on the printed page in an economic fashion.
The period might seem to some superfluous, but as texts and tweets show, it serves a purpose: The use of it reminds writers that they actually have to complete the thought. Como Pool? Como Zoo? Where in the 759 acres of Como Park are you? Using periods tells the reader you have actually finished thinking and also expressing your thought. Further, it tells the reader that you are expressing something that you assert to be true. There is both necessity and pleasure in the use of a period.
In fact, I have long taught students that the most exciting piece of punctuation is the period. It is (dare we say it in this age?) manly. It gives a firm rhythm to prose, something like the steady beat of a drum. It marks strong—neither hysterical nor gushy nor overloaded with enthusiasm—assertions of fact or opinion and gives the reader a pause to digest them and decide whether to affirm, deny, or leave them hanging till later evidence comes in from the following sentences or other sources.
The problem with regular use of the period is not, I think, that it marks troubled, cross, or angry souls, but that it marks calm and firm souls who are willing to stand steady and assert something. Our age swerves among exclamations, expletives, and up-speak, the latter denoting the annoying habit of raising the inflection at the end of declarative sentences as if to suggest uncertainty. The uncertainty, one might add, signaled by ending sentences without periods.
We could use a lot more sentences with periods these days.
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The featured image is “A teacher explains common punctuation marks” (1869) by John William Orr (1815-1887) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.