Saturday, 11 June 2016

On the reported death of the full-stop / period

It's amazing how a small point (literally) makes the headlines. Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing:

John's coming to the party [statement of fact]
John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!]

My general point was to warn people against accepting uncritically the kinds of definition often made when children are being taught punctuation, such as 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'. It's important to draw their attention to the limitations of such a definition. To start with, it should be 'A statement...', contrasting the full-stop with other forms of sentence-final punctuation (?, !, ...), but it's also important to acknowledge that there are many exceptions. Look around you: public signs (WAY OUT - elliptical for the statement 'This is the way out'), for instance, typically don't end with full-stops. Headlines in newspapers don't end with full-stops (these days - a different story in Victorian times). Abbreviations such as BBC and Mr dropped their full-stops during the last century. And on the Internet, in certain settings where it's obvious from the layout that a sentence has ended, they are being omitted.

As John Humphreys once said, in the Spectator, the job of a journalist is to simplify and exaggerate. And that's what happened. My point got reported on the front page of the Telegraph - front page, no less - and the online site had the headline 'Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging'. Note the generalization. Whereas I was saying that the full-stop was changing in instant messaging (and the like), the paper reports it as changing everywhere because of instant messaging.

Unsurprisingly, as papers and radio programmes steal from each other all the time, Chinese-whisper-like, the drama increased. And when it got to the New York Times - the front page again - the headline read 'A Full Stop for Periods?' and the opening paragraph made a summary that then spread all over the globe: 'One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying'. And the writer went on:

The period ... is gradually being felled in the barrange of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age

He used no full-stop at the end of his paragraph, or elsewhere in the article. It was a clever trope, but it went well beyond what I was saying, for there is no evidence at all that the full-stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles. The writer's joke worked because he restricted his piece to single-sentence paragraphs. If he had used more than one sentence per paragraph he would soon have had to rely on the full-stop to make his writing easy to read.

So the full-stop is not dying, outside the circumstances I mentioned above. But in journalism, who cares about qualifying comments like that? Death always makes a good story, so why mess it up? And thus, in the last 24 hours, we see these headlines:

The period is dead - but so what? (Bostom Globe)
Period coming to a full stop (The Straits Times)
Has the period reached the point of no return? (San Diego Uninon-Tribune)
The period is dead. Long live the period. (Huffington Post)
Full stop? There is no point (The Telegraph, Calcutta)

Doubtless many more in the next 24. And my in-box is filling up with people who are wanting to draw my attention to the fact that the change in usage is context-restricted - which is of course what I was saying in the first place.

I'm hugely impressed by the fact that punctuation makes front-page news in a way that other aspects of language don't. But the journalistic treatment reinforces my main pedagogical point: that when children are being taught about punctuation, they need to be told about the mixed usage that is part of everyday orthographic experience, and not be given (or tested on!) rules that work only some of the time. Oversimplification is the curse of orthography. Fortunately, the body-copy in the articles above did usually address the complexity to some extent. But people remember the headlines, which were as misleading as the old mantra 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'.


Nathaniel Hoffelder said...


I did not realize, when I read the NYTimes story, that I also followed your blog. I also didn't realize just how they had mangled the story.

I agree with your more general point. When I blogged about this story, I too argued that the changes are context-sensitive:

Phillip Minden said...

Is that last sentence meant to be ironically illustrative? That you put the full stop after the quoted sentence implies, in British as in American usage, that the quoted sentence has no full stop.

DC said...

No, I was just using it to end my sentence. It's one of the ambiguities in the system that, in such a case, the printer's convention of not duplicating the full-stop (.'.) leaves it unclear what the original sentence punctuation was. Huge discussion of points like this over the years!

@BobK99 said...

Yes - newspapers seem to use myth-making about punctuation 'decline' as a convenient filler on a slow news day. This post of mine (on the apostrophe) is quite old. but I think it's worth another outing - a small thing, but mine own(!?!)


Herschel Schwartz said...

"But the journalistic treatment reinforces my main pedagogical point: that when children are being taught about punctuation, they need to be told about the mixed usage that is part of everyday orthographic experience, and not be given (or tested on!) rules that work only some of the time."
As those developing and spreading these changes in punctuation usage are in fact largely children (and teenagers) who were taught such rules, how much do you think abstract instruction on this point actually matters? It seems that IM users are able to learn these practices through normal language acquisition mechanisms, so how important could abstract instruction be here? I know you've written about the importance of accurate and comprehensive abstract language instruction, though I'm not familiar with all of your opinions on the subject; where do you think that such instruction becomes useful, and where is it irrelevant due to normal language acquisition (even of formal written forms etc.)?

DC said...

Actually, most f the examples I encountered when I was collecting data on this issue came from older people - my kids (youngest in his thirties), for example, and also a group of teachers in an IATEFL forum.

Children have to learn to manage punctuation (and language in general), to understand the stylistic variation that exists, and this has to be taught. It inevitably involves some abstract instruction, and my point is that this should be grounded in the realities of what actually happens in written language. The point applies equally to spelling, grammar, and other aspects of language, of course. As I argue in the teaching section of Making a Point, and also in Spell it Out (and next year, in Making Sense - the third volume in this series, on grammar), this instruction can be judiciously introduced from the earliest days in schooling. That's how linguistic pedagogy relates to language acquisition: to relate one's personal learning and intuitions to the linguistic norms in society as a whole.

DC said...

Today received a one-line anonymous message to my website.

I will continue to use the period!

@BobK99 said...

The first book I edited from typescript to bookshop (at OUP 1979-81) was called that (Making Sense). Not a very ...biddable author, as I remember; my only successful editorial suggestion was to remove the first two letters from belabour the point.

Carry on please...