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Your Punctuation Sends a Wrong Message? Yes. Maybe! Think so

Good grammar hasn’t changed, but millennials and older adults often read meaning into text punctuation – and many times it’s not the same meaning.

NEW YORK – As the global pandemic pushes more communication from in-person to text, there is even more opportunity for confusion over digital messages. In the past six months, you may have appeared passive-aggressive in a text without even knowing because you used ellipses. Or perhaps that period you used made your tone appear curt when you were just trying to end a sentence. Maybe you read an exclamation point as shouting when it was intended to be friendly.

When it comes to texting, there can be plenty of tonal confusion, especially among people of different generations. It turns out there’s a reason for the disconnect that’s tied to when a person adopted digital communication in his or her lifetime.

Many young people have a “computer-first mentality” and choose different grammatical tools in messages compared with those who are older and grew up doing “more casual writing on postcards,” says linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.”

The good news: When you understand the reasoning behind the grammar in a text from someone who has a different relationship with technology (and typically is of a different generation), you can better avoid miscommunication.

Here are three common punctuation points that can cause trouble, and how to deal with them:

Ellipsis

Example: Sounds good ...

To older texters: The dot-dot-dot can mean an indication of a new idea, with no negative connotation.

To younger texters: The ellipsis can be used to convey that there’s something left unsaid.

Explanation of difference: “If you write someone a letter or postcard, you know using just a small punctuation character is an efficient way of (using the space) to go from one thought into the next,” McCulloch says.

On the other hand, “computer space is cheap,” McCulloch says. “A line break takes up the same amount of code as dot-dot-dot.” So to begin a new idea, a younger person will likely begin a new message. They’ll use the ellipsis only to add a meaning to their message.

Tip: Use a dash if you want to avoid sending a message that reads as passive-aggressive. “Go for the dash!” McCulloch says. It’s a safer punctuation mark because it doesn’t carry multiple meanings.

Period

Example: Sounds good.

To older texters: This is the natural way to end a sentence.

To younger texters: A period reinforces a negative connotation to a sentence, particularly with short sentences that stand alone.

Explanation of difference: Multi-sentence messages don’t typically cause miscommunication, but “the real culprits” are short sentences or single-word replies, McCulloch says. The period in the example “Sounds good.” could indicate the opposite of what the words literally mean, because one’s voice typically goes down when reading a sentence that ends in a period. As McCulloch puts it, “The falling intonation seems to undermine it,” especially for a younger reader. But if the message were written “Sounds good!” that message would read as positive because an exclamation point indicates a rising intonation. (More on exclamation points below.)

Tip: Be aware of the fact that a period could inadvertently indicate a serious tone in your message.

Exclamation point

Example: Sounds good!

To older texters: This can read like yelling.

To younger texters: An exclamation point might feel like a tool indicating politeness.

Explanation of difference: McCulloch says exclamation points have been used as “a politeness marker” since the early 2000s. However, she has recently heard from young people who say they’re not allowed to use the exclamation mark at work because their employers perceive it as aggressive.

Lately, the exclamation point has been a point of contention amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It can come across as sort of “heartlessly chipper,” McCulloch says, “even if cheer may have been called for in our previous lives.”

Tip: Mirror the other person’s use of exclamation points. “If someone sends me an email with no exclamation marks, I will try to send them an email back with as few exclamation marks as possible,” she says.

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