Punctuating a text.

“The medium is the message!”
“Form is content.”
“Fuck off…”
“No”

When I first started writing for this blog close to five years ago, I barely texted. It was a pain in the ass. The iPhone hadn't been invented. But today, I text 10 times more than I talk on the phone or email. In fact, I greatly prefer texting to talking on the phone. So I've been thinking a lot about texting. And in particular, I've been thinking a lot about this one little part of texting: the punctuation that finishes a text. Some of you may have already discussed this adequately and at length among friends or perhaps you've found a website to help you feel comfortable with this. If so, please inform. I'd be grateful. I've yet to explore this topic outside my own head. Indulge me. My topic is this: The way in which texts take on an additional meaning by the way they end–or don't end. By the punctuation–or lack thereof–that finishes them. I have identified four broad categories for punctuating the conclusion of a text.

!) For quite some time now, I've realized that finishing a text with an exclamation point raises the message to a special level. Usually a level of good will. I like using an exclamation point. And receiving messages with exclamation points. But texting and the constant insertion of exclamation marks have challenged a fundamental part of me. There is that rule that I internalized many years ago as a college English major (Strunk and White?) that “one only gets three (three?!) exclamation points in life, so use them wisely.” Ha! How unfortunate it is to not be able to see into the future when composing a style manual for writing. You had a good run, S&W! Anyway, it's been a mild personally awkward transition for me typing so many many !!!s. But I digress, the important thing here is how I've now had to grapple with what exclamation points mean to the text I just received–or just sent. They obviously imply excitement. But they also transmit a level of kindness, eagerness, and overall smiley-ness. I have a hard time describing the vast rainbow of meanings that !!! points can impart. And it's probably boring to try to. But I am constantly struck and even surprised by the extra level of gratifying meaning that their presence produces for me. They make me happy. Please don't stop including !s in your messages to me!

.) The next punctuation option is the period. This one implies soberness. It is businesslike. And respectable. It is also the default punctuation on the iPhone (and other smart phone operating systems?) if one simply presses the space button twice. It is Apple's stamp of neutrality. “No dude, don't read anything more into this text, it's got a period.” End of story. It's the definitive defaultability. The “whateverness” of punctuation. And it's this meaning that complicates it so much for me. It's far and away the most used punctuation I include in my texts. But it feels the most fraught. I guess since so so many many truly neutral communications are sent out with the period, it seems so forgettable. But it's exactly that Switzerland status that makes it so powerful when deployed in other contexts. Like highly charged emotional contexts. Those moments when I'm feeling especially self-conscious, I find that the arrival (or use) of a period can be particularly jarring. “What, why a period? Didn't that text deserve an exclamation point? or an ellipses? What's wrong here?” That's where the period can drive you crazy. It has unexpected power. Beware of over-examining the period. Be-especially-aware of being drunk and over-examining the period.

…) Then there's the ellipses. Those three dots in a row at the end of a text. It seems like this option has really only been happening in a big way over the past few months, but the ellipses does do something important. I don't use it that often, but I should. It seems to replace the exclamation point's good will with another, more measured, more knowing level of goodwill. It says, “I could use an exclamation point here, but I decided that my sentiment is slightly different.” It's excited, but doesn't require a text in response. And then there's the traditional meaning, like “I have more to say about that.” Or “this conversation is to be continued.” But there's something else too. What else am I missing about the ellipses?

) And the there's the absence of punctuation at the end of a text. It's clearly the best course of action in many texts. It implies “I'm efficient and I don't need to bother hitting the space bar twice at the end of this message.” Or, “this single word I'm sending does not need punctuation.” But, sometimes it seems lazy. Or even inconsiderate. And in a moment of extreme emotional projecting, it might even imply something more malicious. Even passive aggressive. And leave me wondering if my prior text said something wrong. Or maybe the person just doesn't have a smart phone yet and it's burdensome to have to access the symbol key for the period. I don't know. Is it just me, or does a text without punctuation feel sometimes kind of strange?

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I suppose I've left out a few other text-ending punctuation options here. Like all the emoticons. But their meaning seems so straightforward to me. Is there anything else I haven't included? Am I the only one out there who has over-interpreted punctuation? Please, dear readers don't leave me hanging. The only thing worse than meaning-loaded punctuation is no response at all. Don't make me fret all day…

Please! :)

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    20 responses to “Punctuating a text.”

    1. LP says:

      I’m a big fan of the ending dash, as it’s friendly and makes it seem like there’s more to come -

    2. Jeremy says:

      Have I ever told you how much I love you, Farrell? This post is so endearing, I have to say…

      I think about stuff like this way too much (try being in a brand-new relationship in which texting is the primary mode of non face-to-face communication… everything takes on added weight and meaning, of course, and punctuation is a huge part of that). I’m partial to the ellipsis, if only because I sometimes cringe at the abruptness of the period (especially with the super-short sentences that texting often elicits) or the cheesiness of the exclamation mark (I’m sure all the writers and English teachers on this blog are with you on that one), though I find myself exclaiming it up pretty often these days! And I just haven’t been able to get on board with emoticons (sigh, yet), though I do sometimes spell them out (“insert frowny-face emoticon here”), but that just seems unnecessarily snarky. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before I start using them, actually… Because, really, when The Girl sends me a smiley-face emoticon, I always smile in real life.

      Also, 1.) That looks more like an ending hyphen to me, LP :-)

    3. Stick with the ellipsis…

    4. Tim says:

      I loved this! I, too, overuse the exclamation point, usually in emails and FB wall posts.

      The period, I find, is especially bedeviling. Sometimes I’m just not excited and want to express something quick and to the point in a text or email, but then I get to the end of a sentence and realize that it could be read with irony or sarcasm when ended with a period. I hate that my audience might misinterpret and think I’m being blasé when I’m not.

      I really enjoy punctuating my texts correctly all the way through, including commas and semicolons, and spelling all words out. I think I’ve used “u” to mean “you” about 3 times, tops. In those cases I was in a huge hurry, but I still felt like I was cheapening the exchange by not respecting the language.

      I like the ellipses and LP’s idea of using the dash–very Dickinsonian, yes? — but fear that my audience might be hanging on, holding out for more, generating an unnecessary back and forth. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to wrap up an exchange by text; there’s a fear that one might seem standoffish if one doesn’t respond, even when there’s nothing to say. “See you there!” “Can’t wait!” “Me neither!” “Okay, 5pm.” “Right.”

      What about experimenting by ending all texts with a question mark? Then it would sound like you’re talking in up-speak, right? You could sound like a valley girl, you know? It’s just a thought, okay? You don’t have to make that face, all right?

    5. lane says:

      i’m partial to elipsese . . . or how ever you spell it.

      on blogs and such . . . not so much on texting, there i love u’s and r’s. it’s so . . . japaneese . . .!

    6. J-Man says:

      I, too, enjoy the exclamation point, although I often think that it makes me sound too Pollyanna-ish (“Gee, guys! That’s swell!”) I do wish there was something in-between the exclamation point and the period that indicates some sort of non-emotional middle-ground; I also use dashes a lot, but they don’t work for me so much at the end of the sentence. What about a squiggly? Such as, “See you there~”

    7. ScottyGee says:

      I’m a little bummed that I’ll ultimately be forced to buy a “better” phone so I can text with greater ease. Such is the cost for staying connected to friends…

    8. Jeremy says:

      The Girl says I need to own up to my overuse of parentheses (in all my writing, but particularly in my texts). Oops! See? I did it again!

    9. Farrell Fawcett says:

      Tim, you described the “bedeviling” period very well. That’s true for me too–i guess probably most of us. And yes, when to wrap up an exchange. Quite troubling, indeed. The question mark? Quite a good idea? How far we can we take this? I like J-Man’s squiggly more than the Dickinsonian dash, but I find something a little confusing about them. Like, “do I respond to that? Does that mean end of conversation? Should I send a response with a dash or a squiggly?” Still it’s good to have more options. I can find a place for those two in my communications. Then there’s always: XO.

      Jeremy, (ah, thanks for the kind words…) I feel the same about emoticons, but I’m warming up. I like them especially as simple stand-alone texts. But very sparingly. I feel a little like a 12 yr old girl when I use them. Like putting hearts as the dots of an i.

      And Lane, I find that with the iphone, I stopped using u’s and r’s. Again, they make me feel like a teenager, maybe Japanese. but more like a midwestern teenager. Also, I do feel strangely like it disrespects my recipient. Especially since i have a keyboard.

      Scotty, you’ll love your new phone. Almost as much as you love me.

    10. J-Man says:

      XO! I like xo.

      :}

    11. lane says:

      i can see your points in regards to maturity issues, but i like the way single character “words” look. and with a blackberry keyboard, (although just a phone) it’s easier. . . .

    12. farrell fawcett says:

      Dearest “all I need is a shady” Lane,

      yes…

    13. farrell fawcett says:

      J-Man,

      XO to that emoticon…

    14. lane says:

      thx, and hey! jeremy once made fun of me 4 using : o ) . . . fuk u bro! . . . ; – )

      that’s an electronic bitch slap . . .

    15. lane says:

      oh yeah, and caps, did that come up in the essay? i only read a little of it. lower case e-chat is funnier i think . . . but that’s me . . .

      oh so now i’m reading it.

      the elipses note a tone of thoughfulness. yes i’m smarting off, but i’m trying to be clever, i’m not disrespectful of the audience but i have high standards . . . like leaping off a camel. . . .

      EVERYTIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    16. lane says:

      weird, i stopped reading this morning at the paragraph on ! i scanned the next one . and skipped the third . . .

      and started smarting off . . . that’s what i mean, after twitter and FB, who can even read sentences anymore. . . except if you’re at VFLS . . . or whatever that fuck that place is. . . : )

      elipese canote e-chat better than other forms of punctuation.

      there

      !

    17. farrell fawcett says:

      Good Sir Miscel-lane-eous,

      You raise a good point. The all-cap words which are so useful sometimes. I so rarely do it in texts. It would take so much extra work. A real shame. But i WOULD, but there’s no Caps-Lock function (that i know of) on the iPhone. But, oh, I do wish there were a caps-lock function. So I could text things like “GOOD NIGHT ALL YOU AWESOME PEOPLE!!!”

      XO…

    18. Dave says:

      Double-tap the shift button for caps-lock.

    19. Farrell Fawcett says:

      Thanks Dave! But you have to enable the function first in settings->general->keyboard. HURRAY!