What is a full stop (period) for? Well, surely it’s how we tell one sentence has ended and a new one is about to begin.
To many people, that would seem straightforward enough. But could there actually be a more sinister meaning lurking behind this small, seemingly innocent piece of punctuation?
‘Punctuation mark may be dying’
Last year The Telegraph published a news story with the headline, ‘Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging’. In the article, Professor David Crystal – who’s authored over a hundred books on language – was quoted commenting on the changing significance of the mark for social media and instant messaging users.
‘People simply do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point. The full stop is now being used in those circumstances as an emotion marker,’ Crystal noted. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that in the history of full stops before. It’s quite extraordinary what’s going on there.’
Coming from such an authority on language, his comments created quite a stir. Various news outlets picked up on the story, here and overseas. Author Dan Bilefsky wrote an amusing follow-up article in The New York Times, without using a single full stop. It started by suggesting this punctuation mark may actually be ‘dying’.
So just what is going on? Well, on social media at least, there is a growing trend for treating the use of the full stop as a passive-aggressive act: a sign of anger, of harshness – or even an indication that you wish to end communication with the person you’re writing to.
It’s the difference between:
To many people, this kind of distinction may seem immaterial. But for others, a full stop used in a certain way is akin to being on the receiving end of a displeased tone or irritated glance. As a delegate on one of our recent business-writing courses in London said, ‘If my girlfriend ends a message with a full stop, I know she is cross with me.’
If you’re thinking that this shift in meaning seems like a lot of hype over very little, then in one sense you’d be right. Crystal wrote a blog post, emphasising a point that the journalistic rush to cover his remarks missed: he was mainly talking about full stops in the context of social media and platforms like WhatsApp.
The practice of using a full stop as a kind of minimalist emoji – one signalling discontent with your reader – seems for now to be largely confined to messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
And here, it is generally already abundantly clear where one sentence ends and another begins. Messages are automatically separated into easier-to-read formats – such as separate comments or messages – so that the addition of a full stop can easily take on a new or additional meaning.
Responding to the full-stop-free New York Times piece, Crystal calls it ‘a clever trope’, but notes that it exaggerates his point – and the threat posed to the punctuation mark. ‘There is no evidence at all that the full stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles.’
Unfortunately, when it comes to business writing, we think Professor Crystal may well be wrong.
Full stops and all that rubbish
We’ve seen signs of shifting attitudes towards full stops on our business-writing courses.
‘Something is definitely going on with full stops,’ says Emphasis trainer Wendy Ferguson. ‘One delegate said she never used them in emails and nor did her colleagues. They just started a new line instead.’
And this isn’t just a case of a few employees going rogue: such omissions can even be prescribed by management. Wendy continues, ‘I’ve spoken to delegates who have been told by their manager to take [full stops] out of their business emails, because “we don’t need full stops, commas or any of that rubbish”.’
No point in caring?
So, in the future, will people simply leave a gap between sentences for fear of offending someone? Will every sentence end with a smiley face (or other emotion-appropriate emoji)? And should we even care?
Well, yes, we should care. Whether you’re in favour of full stops or not, there is a wider issue at stake here.
Very informal writing styles are already being transferred across to the workplace. Text speak (How RU? CU l8er!) is creeping into work emails. Smiley faces are appearing in professional reports. And now it looks like full stops could start disappearing from important business correspondence, making crucial documents harder to read.
Ultimately, using full stops and other punctuation within the rules of Standard English remains critical for good business writing. Breaking these rules can come with severe consequences, particularly in more formal fields such as finance, banking, insurance, consultancy and the law.
You may miss out on an important business deal; cause a breakdown in relations with a key client; or come across as unprofessional to key internal stakeholders, losing credibility and trust.
Graduates and writing skills
Many companies say they are increasingly concerned about the quality of business-writing skills, particularly among their graduate intake, who’ve grown up communicating primarily via social media and messaging services.
Kate Emmerson, HR Manager at sustainability consultancy Carbon Clear, told us how important the way their people write is to the professional approach they pride themselves on as a business. And knowing what kind of writing is appropriate in any context is key. ‘We’re keen to help our graduates understand that there is a time and a place for informal language,’ says Kate.
And identifying that time and place can be something that those with less experience in professional writing struggle with. ‘It’s vital our graduates are able to understand the audience they are writing to, put themselves in their shoes and write messages accordingly,’ Kate explains. ‘We’re finding that there is a gap in these skills from university to the workplace.’
According to a recent graphic shared by Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, users of his mobile messaging service send 42 billion messages, 1.6 billion photos and 250 million videos every day. With people practising their writing skills in these environments, it’s small wonder they tend to carry them into their day-to-day work.
Addressing a skills gap
To help address this sort of concern, we’ve developed a dedicated training course aimed at improving the business-writing skills of graduates. We’ve also produced a handy guide for graduates, to help them shake off their academic shackles and bring out their business voice in their writing. You can download a free copy of the guide here.
Returning to the matter of the full stop’s plight – it makes you wonder about the future of other punctuation marks. Are the others equally under threat? Will the comma come under attack next? Or the question mark? Where will it end – and even more importantly, without full stops, how will it end?
What do you think? Let us know in a comment below: we’d love to hear from you.
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