Punctuation: a minefield of unexploded communication bombs

A full stop used to be just the standard way to end a sentence, for your average educated adult. Now, it seems, it’s an act of psychological warfare.

A group of researchers have tested whether the full stop had become a social cue, using 126 undergraduates as their sample and comparing exchanges via text message with handwritten notes. For the latter it didn’t matter, but in text messages, using a full stop is seen as less sincere. And yet more studies and research reveal the full stop is seen as blunt, too final, or harsh.

I love punctuation for its versatility. I love that it has a language all of its own, and it’s an art when someone uses a variety of punctuation marks correctly. Punctuation can say so much with just a couple of tiny dots and lines.

Take the ellipsis, for example. I know a chap who’s addicted to ellipses; he sprinkles them liberally throughout his sentences. After some digging around in the recesses of his brain, we decided the ellipsis overuse was a way of hedging, a way of keeping the conversation open - and yes, a way of avoiding being too final or blunt.

Sometimes, however, ellipses overuse syndrome can be obstructive to good communication. Take this sentence:

I looked at the contract … there are some things missing … no sales details … dates wrong … not firm … let me know …

A clearer way to communicate would be:

I took a look at the contract and I can see some things missing: there is no sales data, the dates are wrong, and the contract overall is not firmed up. Please let me know when you have these items fixed.

Some people employ the ellipsis in order to actively create uncertainty. You know the types - the shirkers, the ones who like to avoid work if they possibly can. They’re the types who will use an innocent piece of punctuation such as the ellipsis to abdicate responsibility and avoid accountability. I know, I know - it’s a bold claim for something as benign as punctuation.

I’ve come across a range of punctuation savants in my time. I know yet another chap who writes entirely in lower case. I imagine it’s another way of coming across non-threatening and friendly, in a ‘don’t shoot me, I’m just the little guy’ kind of way. Then there’s the fans of double spaces, who believe that a loving double thump on the space bar is a way of paying homage to a mellifluous sentence, happily ignoring the progress we have made in technology since the typewriter was relegated to the relic room.  

Or those addicted to smiley faces, seemingly incapable of sending an email devoid of a happy face, lest it be interpreted as too aggressive. The problem is, once you pop, you can’t stop.

The ultimate, though, was the de rigeur habit at one women’s magazine where I worked: every email had to be signed off with a ‘x’, regardless of whether you knew the person or not. It was considered ‘off brand’ to leave it out.

All put together, it can make for a mish-mash of problematic punctuation, a long string of almost incomprehensible marks on the page used with little critical thought. So take stock today of what you’re doing to your punctuation, and ask if you’re using it - or abusing it.