You text a friend for a favor and get this response: “…yeah… sure.” How does this reply sound back in the recesses of your mind? Do you feel a note of annoyance, a twinge of inconvenience? To me, it seems like it could carry the thought, “I don’t know why you’d ask me to do that, but, um, ok.” Or even, “Ugh, I guess I can do that for you, but I don’t really want to.”
But what if the response had been, “yeah, sure!” Personally, I know I’d prefer getting that text. It’s affirming, and doesn’t make me feel like a nuisance!
Punctuation matters. It is how we give cadence to our words. It shows mood, denotes pauses, reveals attitude. It can excite! It can cause uncertainty? In the case of the ellipsis (better known as the dot-dot-dot) it can even convey condescension. And it can do all these things unintentionally, if we don’t pay attention.
Unfortunately, punctuation is nowadays little remembered in our worlds of texting, instant message, and other informal means of typed, written communication.
And that’s a problem.
Very few people would argue the fact that the tone of voice in a conversation carries meaning, that it can change the direction of a conversation very quickly. A condescending tone versus a sympathetic tone can quickly change a desire to help someone into a mocking commentary on their failings. A dismissive tone can ruin efforts to mend a fight. An overly excited tone in a sad situation can be, well, awkward.
Most people who use modern technology also agree that it’s much easier to be misunderstood in texting and IM than in spoken conversation. That, combined with the fact that people clearly understand the importance of tone in spoken word, is why I’m baffled that the substitute for tone in writing – punctuation – is so poorly used and ignored.
While words convey the technical meaning, and some of the tone, of the things we write, punctuation makes the final decisions in the attitude portrayed.
The example from the beginning was taken from my mother’s experience. When asking for help with a ministry favor, she received the unexpectedly positive, “Yes, Sure!” from a coworker. That exclamation mark made all the difference, setting it apart from the expected noncommittal agreement she typically got.
What I’d like to see, if our generation insists on being in constant typed communication, is a simple awareness that ignoring or misusing punctuation can actually have a negative effect on interpersonal relationships.
I’ve been on both ends of unintentional negative punctuation. An accidentally added question mark to the managing editor of the Standard once turned my lighthearted reminder text into a sarcastic, condescending reproof. I corrected it quickly, but the recipient admitted to a raised eyebrow when she got it, wondering at the unusual tone.
When receiving texts, my biggest pet peeve is the ellipsis. To the question, “Do those forms come from HR?,” our business manager once replied, “no…” Wait, what does that trailing-off answer mean? Was it a stupid question? Was he annoyed at me for asking?
I eventually recognized that those periods were at the end of almost every single text of his at the time, so they probably didn’t mean anything.
Often such misunderstandings can be cleared up easily – but not always. If words are a tool, then the punctuation that shapes them into sentences is what decides if they are being used to love, to help, to admonish, to insult, or to hurt.
So to those of you who thought punctuation was just a silly, outdated concept retained by English teachers for an excuse to criticize you, think again. Pay attention to the effect your punctuation has on what you say. And see if your communication benefits from it.
This piece is considered a “standard” column in our print edition.
Writer’s Block: exploring connections between life and communications
by Jenna Pirrie, editor-in-chief