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'.