“Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style” is a bit of a mind bender.
My first reaction was, “What? No way.” Then, halfway through the article, I realized the Times had pulled a fast one: they only used a period once to make a point (no pun intended). The rest of the article? Bereft of periods.
And it’s still perfectly readable.
I’ll admit I’m one of those annoying people who writes text messages in complete sentences, and unless I’m in a real hurry I’ll even copy edit the damned thing before hitting send. Am I just doing it out of habit? If so, is it habit of upbringing, or habit because I think like a writer?
Just now I grabbed my phone and surveyed various messages from friends. My first thought: maybe just the avid readers type in full sentences? Not so much. Two guys my age, one a reader and one not, write in full sentences. A few people several years behind me? Not a period to be found, except one case where there were two sentences in the same text. When she didn’t use exclamations or question marks, there was only a period to end one sentence, and the second sentence was left without.
All of their messages make perfect sense, and I’ve long since stopped noticing the missing periods. And they’re using full sentences, not abbreviations and acronyms. (Maybe those died with the death of numeric keyboards and the rise of autocorrect and predictive text? Either way, I don’t miss them.) I don’t get the impression they much care I use periods, and they certainly don’t take them as aggressive or indicative of emotion. Perhaps it’s time to see how our high school students feel about it.
Language has always been dictated by usage. English has changed quite a bit since Shakespeare, as evidenced by Shakespeare presented in its original pronunciation. Check out this discussion and demonstration by the same linguist cited in the period article:
Fascinating stuff, really. Perhaps we’re seeing language evolve rapid-fire before our eyes in the form of digital content.
Perhaps, then, the period is no different from manuscript habits like using two spaces after a period or double-spacing after line breaks. I once drove an editor mad with tabs at the beginning of paragraphs because software handles first-line indents now, and he finds that a lot more flexible with digital publishing. Are they next to go, or is it just him?
That all said, I don’t see the period disappearing anytime soon. I’m sure publishing will be slow to take up such a drastic change, and academia is even slower. I’ll find it hard to give up the period, even if someone somewhere leads the charge to make it official. I’m sure copy editors and typographers are already having heart attacks at the thought of it.
The next generation may not care. If my kid takes up writing like he says he’d like to, how will his habits change within the next 10-15 years?
On the one hand, it may be a function of design. I read about the punctus in a similar article. That thing sounds pretty cool, but it’s long dead. I bet most of you are googling it right now (and look how “googling” has become a verb, even for those goofy people who still do it on Yahoo!).
It’s about more than just readability, too, because most of us have seen variations of this crop up on our Facebook feeds:
I do wonder about the effect dumping the period would have on someone with dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. Or “emerging readers” (elementary students). That might be a question to bounce off the special ed teachers and reading specialists at my day job.
I’m not advocating for or against the period. My gut says, “This is madness!” Yet my brain had no problem processing the article without periods, and I’ve been reading texts and email from people without them for years. We gave up the fight for good grammar in texts and email a long time ago, with exceptions for situations like job applications.
Language evolves, whether oral or written.
Perhaps it’s a matter of ephemera. A text is not meant to last. Neither is a tweet. Nor any other social media output. They’re all mean to communicate something quickly and disappear, despite being stored in a feed until an account is deleted. Even this blog post will scroll on back in time, read for a few days—or perhaps just hours—and quickly forgotten. If it is going to be thrown away or has to be shoehorned into 140 or 160 characters, it really doesn’t matter.
Consider, then, e-books. Are they ephemeral?
“But Mike, books are available forever!”
We’d like to think so, wouldn’t we? Writers love the idea of books stocked in perpetuity, sitting in dusty stacks to be discovered by future generations. With the sheer volume of digital output produced every moment, though, this is increasingly unlikely. I don’t peruse my e-book collection, and I’d hazard to guess those of us who wistfully fondle our bookshelves are very much in the minority.
It’s all consumed and forgotten, consumed and forgotten. As evidence, we can point to the endless number of books published and forgotten over the last 100 years. Walk into any used book store and consider how many books were consumed and discarded. Why pretend e-books are any different? Because Amazon can let you leave it on their servers forever? They’re just going to get buried deeper and deeper beneath the ever-expanding catalog, just like that used book store overflowing its stacks.
A hundred years from now, maybe the period will go the way of the punctus, and language will have come full circle. Maybe someone will find an ancient link to Winter Kill and say, “This #book has periods, how quaint Now where the hell is book three”
I bounced the article off several English teachers. Two noticed the lack of periods, neither liked it, and one felt the article writer “cheated” by using several single-sentence paragraphs. Good luck filling long literary or non-fiction passages with a lack of periods.
Another didn’t notice the lack of periods, but had the same feeling: dense paragraphs of text would be tedious.
And let’s consider, the whole reason the punctus and later the period were invented were because of those long, dense paragraphs of text. We want to be entertained or enlightened by reading, not fatigued. Which, to me, comes right back to there being a big difference between direct, ephemeral communication like a text message and something intended to be around for a while.
Finally, the special ed teacher said the period is a big part of learning to read, especially for emerging readers with difficulties. Removing punctuation would make things considerably more difficult for a large portion of their classrooms.
But if we put emoji in their place. . .
Jesus. I don’t even want to think about that anymore.
About Mike Oliveri
Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.