By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
A few months ago, one of my fellow mom friends was accused by her teenage daughter of using “aggressive punctuation” in text messages. Since we’re both writers, my friend and I discussed this new information at length. Writers are punctuation nerds by nature, so we were surprised to learn that teenage text messaging has turned a simple period into something more like a door being slammed in your face.
I asked my own teenagers if they, too, felt like punctuation was a text messaging throat-punch, and they agreed. My daughter even told me that a reply like “Okay” followed by a period is a way of letting the other person know that you are most definitely not okay with whatever they just said.
At first, my friend and I thought this whole thing was absurd. But I’ve noticed that, since then, we’ve both stopped using periods at the end of our text messages to each other. And we’ve definitely stopped using them with our teenage kids because we’re trying not to look like out-of-touch boomers who still spell out words and end sentences with periods.
I’ll admit this new lack of punctuation while texting does make it quicker to reply, since my texting speed is roughly equivalent to pouring bottled ketchup on a burger. But I would never, ever abandon punctuation in any other form of writing. Most writers I know are passionate about punctuation marks and when they should – or shouldn’t – be used. In fact, a recent article on a website called Lit Hub compiled several famous writers’ reactions to different punctuation marks.
While I’m certainly not among the ranks of famous writers, I also have strong feelings about the most common punctuation marks, which I share below. Feel free to disagree with me, but just know that, in my heart, I’ll still know I’m right. Let’s proceed.
Comma: It’s perhaps the most loved of all the punctuation marks. When in doubt, people tend to stick in a comma. Some people will over-comma their sentences into a coma, which isn’t good. I’m not a stickler for hard-and-fast comma rules. I leave them out when I can, but sometimes, when a sentence needs to take a breath, the comma is king.
Semicolon: I won’t say I loathe the semicolon because it doesn’t deserve that much power. My problem with the semicolon is that it can almost always be replaced with a comma instead. And frankly, it should. A semicolon looks like it’s trying too hard, and it can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be. Is it a period? Is it a comma? Pick a lane, semicolon. And then get outta here because we don’t need you.
Exclamation mark: It’s a punctuation mark people love or hate. Most writers believe it’s overused. But I don’t judge people who pepper notes with exclamation marks because some believe it conveys enthusiasm or friendliness – two emotions I appreciate in other humans. But a note with chronic overuse of exclamation marks sounds like it’s being shouted by a hyperactive cheerleader. “Two! Four! Six! Eight! Who do we appreciate?” (Hint: It’s not a gang of exclamation marks.)
Em dash: I deeply love an em dash – a long hyphen that can perform several functions. I’ll admit to using it way too much because I just can’t get enough. I’ve already used it four times in this column, and I’m not even done yet. Sometimes the em dash is like a comma on steroids. Sometimes it’s like a pair of parentheses, only with more pizazz. Sometimes it’s like a colon but not nearly as uptight. The em dash is wildly versatile – the one punctuation mark I’d ask to the prom if I could.
Period: I’m not using them much in text messages anymore, but I still love the period. When I began writing newspaper columns two decades ago, I couldn’t bring myself to use a period after anything but a complete sentence. But now my philosophy is that once you know the rules, you can choose to break them for a good reason – a specific effect. Like a conversational sentence fragment. Or to create more dramatic pauses between words, like this: “Oh.my.gosh. She just sent me a text with the word okay followed by a period!”
You may now email me your strongly worded objections or wholehearted agreement. Just please don’t use a semicolon when you do.