Journalists love to write articles on language. Not only, since they make their livings with words, do they have a professional interest in the topic, but language is a popular topic. People, at least those who read newspapers, love to read about it. The problem is that journalists often get it completely wrong.
A case in point is an article by Dan Bilefsky that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on 9 June about how use of the period, that staid and boring punctuation mark, is changing. In some forms of discourse, the period does not simply mark the end of a sentence, it conveys urgency or emotion. He gets the facts right, but Bilefsky utterly miscategorizes what is happening, framing the period as “going out of style” and “being felled.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is actually happening that in short, electronic forms of communications, such as texts and tweets, the period is not really needed to mark the end of the sentence—much as it isn’t needed in street signs (“Stop” not “Stop.” Or “Exit” not “Exit.”) or in newspaper headlines. Since the period isn’t needed to signal the end of a complete thought, it is available for other purposes, and that’s what texters and tweeters have done. In short, digital messages the period can convey that the writer is not happy about the statement that was just made. So if you arrange to meet a friend at Starbuck’s and she replies “OK” that signals agreement. If she replies “OK.” you had better find a locally-owned, fair-trade coffee shop in which to meet; she is coming, but she’s not happy about it. This type of change is a natural, and useful, adaptation to changing conditions.
But the period is not disappearing from standard prose. While the linguists that Bilefsky quotes (David Crystal and Geoffrey Nunberg) take pains to note that this shift in orthographic convention is restricted to short, electronic messages, Bilefsky frames it as occurring in all forms of prose, even going so far as to write his entire article without using any sentence-ending periods—a cute device, but not at all an illustration of the phenomenon. Crystal even went so far as to pen a blog post pointing out that Bilefsky misunderstood what he was saying.
Bilefsky is not only wrong, he’s late to the party. He was scooped by his own paper. Jessica Bennett wrote a much more accurate piece on the changing roles of punctuation marks in digital communications in the Times over a year ago. Ben Crair had a piece on the changing role of the period in the New Republic back in 2012. (Mark Liberman wrote a Language Log post about the comments to Crair’s piece that is well worth a read.) A week or two before Crair’s piece, PhD Comics took the subject on. All of these other articles got the subject essentially right.
So late and wrong. I think we can expect better from the New York Times.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton