Listen Up! How You Use Punctuation in Texts? It Matters. A Lot.

Punctuation marks convey tone and meaning in text messages and online in far different ways than the old days of the written word. But no mark may infuriate people more than a hostile-sounding period.

Thanks! Thanks? Thanks…

When you’re reading these, are you hearing the difference? How would you react to these one-word sentences if your friend sent them in a text message?

How you use punctuation can change the whole meaning of a text. A quick “thank you” message can go from friendly to passive-aggressive or anxiety-inducing, simply by changing the exclamation point to a period.

“In an Internet context, punctuation is often used to convey a certain kind of tone of voice,” says linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of “Because Internet.” 

Exclamation points sound more polite! Ending a text message with a period might be the grammatically correct way to do it, but it can come across as rude. 

“And if you say things with that tone, that sounds a little bit sarcastic, it sounds a little bit final,” McCulloch said. “And sometimes that gets interpreted as, ‘maybe this person's mad at me, maybe this person isn't sincere…’”

Punctuation online and in texts is more for effect than formality. And for the generations that grew up with the internet, that effect is felt loud and clear.

Not only do we all have something that gets under our skin, but there’s one in particular that seems to collectively infuriate us: the hostile period.

A highly unscientific social media poll revealed that lots of people are reading perhaps too much into punctuation marks in texts. The text responses that most often send people spiraling tend to end with periods: “Thanks.” “Lol.” “Sure.”

Don’t even think about adding a few extra periods to transform “Thanks.” into “Thanks…” That will send the recipient into a tailspin: What does this mean? Are they mad at me?

Social scientists have confirmed similar findings in more rigorous research. A study out of Binghamton University found that ending a text message with a period made the content seem less sincere than a text with  no punctuation at all. Conversely, a text ending with an exclamation point was seen as more sincere than including no punctuation.

While younger generations see the period as unnecessarily harsh or insincere, their parents do not, which creates a linguistic disconnect.

“My dad is very succinct over text. ‘Yes.’ ‘Thx.’ etc.,” said Kristen Dickey, an ad sales executive in Los Angeles. “And for some inexplicable reason, those periods at the end can sometimes feel cumulatively harsh – that, or I just outed myself as a severely oversensitive person.”

If parents seem abrupt or cold in their responses, there’s a good reason for it. Text language, like any language, is nuanced and evolving. McCulloch says older generations learned punctuation in the context of longform writing, like handwritten notes to friends, which doesn’t have the same space constraints as text messages.

But even within Millennials and Gen Z, there are generational differences that have a big impact on how we use and view punctuation.

“When we think about generations online, it’s not just your chronological age. It's also sort of your Internet age. So what social network did you hang out on first when you first got online? What social networks are you hanging out on now?,” says McCulloch. “If you're somebody who's spending all of their time on, like, old school forums these days versus somebody who's hanging out on Instagram or on TikTok, you're going to have different types of exposure to have different types of experiences. And that's going to lead to interpreting different types of punctuation marks in different ways.”

There have been attempts to standardize our digital punctuation use., for example, wrote a guide to punctuation in text messages that both validated our collective unease over the use of the period while throwing significant shade at our parents who close their texts with one:

“If you’re trying to avoid being misunderstood, don’t hesitate to throw in a couple punctuation marks here and there. However, adding punctuation to the end of a text message with a friend can come off as a little dorky, as a general rule.”

As more social platforms come and go and the next generation comes to age online, we may never be free of the nuances of digital punctuation. But McCulloch offers some advice that we may all do well to remember.

“One of the most important things is trying to be generous with each other. You know, it's there are differences here and it is the sort of fast-evolving thing. And, you know, maybe not everyone is trying to be mad at you all the time.”