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The full stop
REBECCA AU, 18, read the text message, saw the dot, and instantly knew that the conversation was over. She had gotten into a bit of a disagreement with her close friend over WhatsApp. After a heated exchange, her friend said to her in a message: “I guess if that’s what you want.” It was the period that did it. “I knew that she was upset and didn’t want to continue speaking with me,” says Ms Au. “It was scary.” The two eventually reconciled. Ms Au’s experience is not an isolated one. A team of researchers at Binghamton University found in 2015 that text messages ending with a period are perceived by US college students to be less sincere than messages that do not.
Sociolinguist Lauren Collister argues that it is the absence of the punctuation in text messaging that amplifies its presence. "This tendency (to omit periods) now subtly influences how we interpret (them)," Dr Collister writes in an editorial on academic website The Conversation.
In fact, a 2007 study by researchers Rich Ling and Naomi Baron found that only 29 per cent of text messages had punctuation at the very end of the message. The researchers had analysed the linguistic patterns of text messages sent by US college females.
Prof Ling tells The Business Times: "A period, as opposed to, for example, a smiley at the end of a message is seen as being rude or abrupt. It is perhaps an indication that the sender is angry."
Professor of psychology Celia Klin, who led the study at Binghamton University, says that many of the social cues used in face-to-face conversations, like tone of voice and facial expressions, are lost in text messaging.
"Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them - emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds and, according to our data, punctuation," says Prof Klin in a press release on EurekAlert!, a science news portal.
But why does a simple dot trigger perceptions of insincerity and coldness?
Dr Collister reckons that it might have something to do with what linguist John J Gumperz calls "situational code-switching".
According to her, written language is tinged with formality because of its association with permanence - in books and documents, that is. But in instant messaging, the setting becomes more casual.
"So when you end your text with a period, it can come across as insincere or awkward, just like using formal spoken language in a casual setting like a bar," she writes.
Interestingly, it seems that older adults do not have a problem with the period.
Says Ms Au: "Using a full stop to show that you are upset is something only teenagers do, so if my mom or some other adult does it, I wouldn't really take it to heart."
"It's the end of a statement or an idea," says Timothy Chua, 50, a director of operations.
"No hard feelings," says Emily Yeo, a 60-year-old retiree.
Different points of entry into electronically mediated communication might explain why young people and older people have different experiences in the virtual world, according to Sun Sun Lim, professor of communications at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
"For people who are 40 and over, their first entry into electronically mediated communication would have been via email. And email would have, and still does retain, many of the conventions of formal writing," says Prof Lim.
"So when they transition their mediated communication from email to SMS, they might continue to adopt some of those conventions."
Younger people, on the other hand, could have entered the online world via various platforms such as instant messaging and social networking, she adds.
Instant messaging - like hanging out at a bar
So what exactly makes instant messaging much more conversational than emails, and even traditional SMS? Prof Lim has a simple explanation for that.
"They're free!" she exclaims.
"What made LINE and WhatsApp so hugely successful was the fact that they are internet-enabled . . . You can send a whole string of messages or videos or funny pictures or memes, and it makes the communication much richer. Whereas for SMS, if I knew that I had to put everything in one message, I would be much more careful."
Prof Lim observes that the exchange of short messages in real time essentially means that "the conversation never ends". The fact that the exchange of messages is captured also allows people to pick up a conversation where they had left it off hours ago, she adds.
"That sort of shift has made the messaging app less transactional in function and more of a relationship-builder, because people are constantly in touch with each other."
It is hard to deny that developers have been modifying their apps to insert more human presence into conversations. Enter the "Seen" function, also known as the "blue ticks" on WhatsApp.
And while some applauded the function, others humorously braced themselves for a little trouble, if a viral picture featuring scenes from the iconic film Breakfast at Tiffany's is anything to go by. In the first frame, the male protagonist proclaims: "I love you." In the second frame, the female protagonist blankly stares back behind her shades; the caption below reads: "Seen".
Textual communication evolves - and punctuation disappears
SMS or instant messaging stand at the nexus of written communication and oral communication, Rich Ling - who had co-authored the 2007 paper on the linguistics of text messaging - points out.
The communications professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) says that traditionally, when one shifts from the spoken to the written, it warrants some indication of actions in the text, such as the taking of a breath, or the completion of a thought.
"We've developed a whole system of chapters and paragraphs, sentences and clauses in order to help manage the communication process," says Prof Ling.
But text messaging has characteristics of both - it is short, gestural, but also written. As a result, textual communication begins to mimic real-life conversation. For instance, most young people - who Prof Ling calls the "innovators" of text messaging - hardly use opening addresses with pleasantries, or closing addresses in their messages. They are more relaxed in terms of word choice, and oftentimes they strike out punctuation altogether.
But other elements of communication have emerged to fill the void left behind by punctuation. "'Haha' is the period," says Prof Ling. Other examples of words that behave like punctuation include "LOL (laugh out loud)", "K", and the Singlish "lah". Even speech bubbles on chat apps have replaced the period or comma, with each bubble representing a thought.
"The development of emoticons and "LOL" and "haha" is a way to socially buffer the end of the sentence," he reveals. "It has become a courtesy - a norm to help regulate feelings."
14-year-old Koh Shao Bing says that he uses emojis to better convey his message - especially when the message could be interpreted differently without the emojis.
"I could say 'I am too good', or 'I am too good' with a laughing emoji at the end. The first could be an example of an inflated ego, while the other merely a joke", says Mr Koh.
Ms Yeo, our 60-year-old retiree, says: "When I message my children, and I don't use emojis, they say that I sound angry."
SUTD's Prof Lim calls emojis a "relationship management tool" - one that is used across all generations. The emoji has so much more than punctuation because it captures emotions and can convey feelings of warmth, sincerity and friendliness," she says.
"By that same token, if you're upset with someone, using the emoji that expresses anger could on the one hand show that you're angry, but also give it that playfulness that says: 'Look, I'm angry with you, but you're still my friend.'"
Communication across different spheres
With digital communication evolving at a dramatic pace, concerns about what is also known as "textspeak" spilling over into formal situations are legitimate.
But studies like that by Gene Ouellette and Melissa Michaud suggest that we might be able to put our worries to rest. In 2016, they found that text messaging patterns among undergraduates do not appear to have a negative impact on traditional language and literacy.
Also, Dr Collister, the sociolinguist, asserts that "past research into situational code-switching in spoken language has shown that a person's ability to code-switch can signal social competency . . . and may be an indicator of high intellectual ability in children".
Within a business organisation, every newcomer would have to read the cues and grasp the communication conventions there too, says Prof Lim, explaining that this applies to the infamous period as well - its usage in a formal setting might not convey coldness or insincerity.
But when it comes to formal emails and punctuation, one element remains fairly contentious.
Jazreel Thian, a 28-year-old senior staff nurse at Singapore General Hospital, would often type the exclamation mark in a formal email, only to hit the backspace key after some thought.
"I think they shouldn't be used in business emails, though I always feel like doing it," she says.
The urge to use the mark stems from the need to communicate emotion. Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better, tells The Business Times in an email: "When we published the book (in 2008), many people were surprised about our defense of exclamation points - multiple exclamations points - and even emojis. But over time, many more people have come to see how useful they are in injecting tone into what is essentially a toneless medium: email."
He notes that with emojis, GIFs and stickers, an exclamation point "seems almost staid and conservative now in comparison".
Head of MDIS School of Languages Pearl Wong says that the institute does not recommend the use of exclamation points in business emails; rather, they should be used according to grammatical convention - that is, denoting heightened feeling or loud volume.
Florence Au, an email etiquette trainer at GIL Consultancy, says: "I generally tell my trainees that the exclamation mark should be used only once in an email, and only for positive connotations, like 'Congratulations!' or 'Thanks!'"
No universal code exists on the contentious exclamation mark in this regard. But Mr Schwalbe offers a suggestion: "It's always a good idea to mirror if you are unsure - that is, if your colleagues, for example, send you emails that rarely use exclamation points, you might want to do the same in your communication with them."
Until then, it seems like there will be no full stop to this conversation