In this article series, we will be exploring how the internet has actively changed the way we use the English language.
We kid, obviously. The evolution of the English language as a result of its use online has been an organic one, where emoji, portmanteaus and slang arose to fulfill changing needs expected of the language online.
Today, we will be exploring a facet the internet that has sent linguists seething: punctuation.
Part 4: Punctuation
Be honest: how often do you use proper punctuation in an online text message or comment? I know I don't.
Among the many unspoken rules of the internet is not to use proper punctuation when sending casual messages and posting comments on Facebook or YouTube, for example, especially if the text you're typing is quite short.
Like the example we mentioned in Part 1, where a spouse sending their significant other certain a message without an emoji might come off as passive-aggressive, the same can be said about someone who types comments or sends text messages as if they were handing in their 12th Grade English essay. Using proper punctuation in online informal communication is weird, and often comes off to the average young netizen as either too superior or conceited. Its use sometimes comes down to a brute butting of heads, where two users in conflict will employ the use of proper punctuation to assert their dominance in the conversation, as online disputes can be settled with more than just casually-thrown profanity. The person who wields language better can often come out on top.
The emoji spouse example can also apply to punctuation. Language, in general, can be very loaded with double entendres and hidden meanings, so when a spouse texts you saying "We need to talk" without any emoji or periods, you know you're in for a lot of trouble. However, if you receive the same message, except it reads this way: "We need to talk." then you know that the finality introduced with that period means your significant other is definitely fuming.
There are variation of this. Sometimes, the spouse might send you a message with all the commas and periods in the right place, but none of the right words are capitalized. This small variation can make a world of difference, resulting in a concerning but less intimidating message.
Generally, we use proper punctuation for many reasons, one of which is the avoidance of ambiguity. Online, we've come to find new and hybrid ways to address this ambiguity. Often, in the place of proper punctuation that we would use to infer the correct meaning of our sentences, we use emoji, slang, and other language constructs of the internet. More recently in the past decade or so, we've come to even add gifs and memes to accompany our messages, giving them new meanings.
Consider this example of a university student texting their roommate about their misplaced milk carton:
"Hey John. Did you drink the milk I had in the fridge?"
This comes off as aggressive and accusing, which will likely start a spat in the flat. Consider the alternative if the sender wants to test the waters with a friendly message before going on the offensive:
"Hey John! Did you drink the milk I had in the fridge "
The use of an exclamation instead of a period, and the use of a smiling emoji with a sweat bead coming down its forehead, as is often found in Japanese anime, indicates a state of lighthearted confusion or discomfort, which indicates to the guilty party that the accuser is disgruntled but not fully aggressive, and is still open to a discussion. If this issue of drinking the other's milk had been happening for quite a while, the first message would likely be used instead as the situation calls for such an escalation.
Still, as seen in the example above, the most basic of our interactions need to incorporate at least a basic semblance of punctuation if we are to ensure the right meaning comes across. Above, an exclamation mark replaced the original period, which made all the difference in the opening greeting. The sender is starting with a positive message, to soften the blow of the following accusation.
Punctuation has always been crucial in forms of written language. However, as we can see in the above examples, it continued to evolve to suit the medium it's being used in. In the age of SMS, where a message would cost you more the longer it is, it was normal to omit punctuation in a manner that might be taken as passive-aggressive today on Instagram or Whatsapp, for example. Each medium of communication demands different uses of punctuation, and punctuation online will only continue to evolve as the internet evolves simultaneously.
Stay tuned for the final part of this article series, coming soon!