Punctuation on WhatsApp can be seen as ‘rude and aggressive’, says linguist

Texting etiquette can be a bit of a minefield - when is the correct time to use an emoji, if ever? Should you use an exclamation mark to show enthusiasm, or does it come off as overly excitable or sarcastic?

Do you use full stops in your messages? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Do you use full stops in your messages? (Photo: Shutterstock)

It may feel like opting for proper grammar and punctuation is the safest way to navigate these modern day troubles - but it seems like that may not be the case according to a language expert.

A full stop is ‘rude and aggressive’

Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch says that people are increasingly seeing the use of a full stop at the end of a message as rude, due to the way we’ve evolving in our use of instant messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Ms McCulloch explained to the BBC, “If you’re a young person and you’re sending a message to someone, the default way to break up your thoughts is to send each thought as a new message.”

“Because the minimum thing necessary to send is the message itself, anything additional you include can take on an additional interpretation.”

A full stop in speech is generally accompanied by lowering your voice to indicate the end of a sentence - it is also associated with formality, or seriousness, according to Ms McCulloch.

This is fine if your message is already serious she said, but if it’s not, that’s when issues arise.

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Do you use full stops in your messages? (Photo: Shutterstock)

“The problem comes when you have a positive message with the seriousness of the full stop,” the linguist said.

“It’s the juxtaposition of those things which creates that sense of passive aggression.”

Studies on punctuation and texting

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In 2015, a study called ‘Texting insincerely: The role of the period in text messaging’ was produced by the psychology department at Binghamton University.

Participants in the study were asked to read exchanges where the response did or did not end with a full-stop. It found that texts that ended with a period were “rated as less sincere than those that did not”, but this did not extend to handwritten notes, where no difference was found.

The study explains that “the rapid pace of texting mimics face-to-face communication” and concluded that punctuation in texting is used as a cue to convey social information rather than just correct punctuation.

Identifying passive-aggressive punctuation

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Erika Darics, a lecturer in linguistics at Aston University told the BBC that it’s all down to context.

Ms Darics said, “If you and your friends don’t normally use full stops in a WhatsApp group and then somebody does, they are probably trying to tell you something about how they feel.”

If someone routinely uses full stops, then you don’t have anything to worry about.

Someone’s age is also likely to inform how they approach punctuation Ms Darics said, so younger people are more likely to send single-sentence messages without a full-stop.

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Linguistic creativity

Online messaging forces people to figure out new ways of conveying emotion and tone and meaning without relying on the use of body language or voice.

Ms McCulloch said, “Within a few short decades of being online, we’ve come up with so many ways of conveying irony and other meanings.”

She notes that the acronym ‘lol’ (laugh out loud) can be used sarcastically, as can the upside down smiling face emoji.