Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada.

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,” declared a New York Times headline. Noted linguist David Crystal had made some comments noting that the period is not requisite in text messages, and as such is used only “to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression,” as article author Dan Bilefsky paraphrased Crystal. From this, Bilefsky – who, just to be cute, left the period off the end of every paragraph in the article – drew the conclusion that the period is going out of style in English generally. As did (obviously) the headline writer.

Which is rather ironic. Tell me: how often are periods used at the ends of newspaper headlines? (Rarely, in case you’re not sure.) And yet this insistent omission has not, over the course of the past century, ushered in the demise of periods in the language generally, or even in newspaper articles in particular. (Bilefsky’s is an ostentatious exception, but that is not because its headline doesn’t end in a period.) Nor has the programmatic omission of forms of ‘be’ in headlines led to their omission elsewhere, although they are left out in other forms that are equally “telegraphic” – for the same reason: economy of space trumps smoothness.

And there is the point. Not all occasions of use of English (or any other language) are the same. Different occasions of communication for different purposes use different components, structure, vocabulary, grammar, and – yes – puncutation. In short, different purposes use different genres. Of course they do! You don’t write a shopping list like a personal letter (“Dear Me: It has been a while since I’ve been shopping, hasn’t it? Could I by any chance manage to pick up some eggs, milk, onions, celery, and fenugreek? That would be splendid if I could. Thanks so much, Yours, Me”). You use what you need, add things as befits the occasion (for politeness, clarity, ornament, what have you), and leave things out for the sake of effect or efficiency.

And if you have declared a particular item unnecessary for the run-of-the-mill functioning of the text, you have it available to use for special effect. Your full name on a government form is a simple requirement of the genre; your full name when spoken by your mother is not required, so it can carry a connotation of concern or disapproval. Poetry, with its line breaks, has less need for capitals and punctuation, so their use and omission can have stylistic significance.

And so it is with periods in text messages. As they are superfluous to the needs of the genre, they have gained expressive potential. Since a simple “end of message” is conveyed by (wait for it) the end of the message, a period can be extra firm, pointedly conclusive. Wilf Popoff has recently given us some instruction in this and similar details of the text message genre, and Frances Peck has addressed the related sub-genre of email salutations. These genre-specific recastings of pieces of punctuation are not losses to the language or even the genre – how can an increase in expressive potential be a loss? But it is also unlikely to spread to genres that need periods to separate sentences in paragraphs, such as the body of news articles… even if it has long since been a feature of headlines.

5 responses to “Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

  1. Languages that survive simplify themselves as time goes by.

  2. I kind of like the idea of a shopping list as a personal letter – might make it more enjoyable as I wander the aisles! Problem is – do I then write a reply?

  3. Great post! Similarly, to save space and ink, newspapers typically use lower-case when they refer to the Queen, the Pope, the President, and similar dignitaries. That long-standing practice hasn’t transferred to other writers – most people continue to capitalize those words.

  4. Reblogged this on Meirav's Soapbox and commented:
    Rumours of the period’s demise have been exaggerated.

    (worth reading this post just for the beautiful shopping list example.)

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