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DANTE RAMOS

The period is dead — but so what?

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Don’t worry about it

No, seriously, don’t

In language, change happens all the time

On Friday, devotees of proper English were alarmed to learn — from The New York Times, no less — that the period at the end of sentences is going out of style. In a front-page story, Times correspondent Dan Bilefsky described how the “barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age” is steadingly altering the way English is written.

The most prominent casualty is the period — or the full stop, as the British call it. David Crystal, an author in Wales who writes extensively on language, puts the matter succinctly: “In an instant message,” he tells Bilefsky, “it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end, and none will have a full stop. So why use it?” Emulating what Crystal calls “the punctuation-free staccato” of millennial text communication, Bilefsky set virtually every sentence in his story as a separate paragraph, and only one ended with a period.

Prominent writers reacted as you might expect. “Truly, the apocalypse is nigh,” sighed Julia Ioffe. “I’m moving to the Land of Misfit Toys,” wrote columnist Connie Schultz. The economist Justin Wolfers declared, “This. Can’t. Stand.”

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Then again, it’s ironic that all this fretting about civilizational decay is occurring in 140-character chunks on Twitter. Punctuation rules aren’t measures of our moral worth; they’re adaptations to the mood and the machinery of their times.

Likewise, millennials who omit periods at the ends of text messages aren’t being lazy or incoherent; they’re recognizing the limits of the technology at hand. Texting conveys words quickly, but not tone. Hence the period — or not. “OK” connotes neutral assent. To signal your irritation, or cold finality, try “OK.”

Rules of punctuation and style come and go. Consider the practice of typing two spaces after a period — a rule that millions of baby boomers and Gen Xers, including me, learned in school. The second space improved legibility when people used typewriters with fixed-width characters but lost its purpose once everyone switched to computers with proportional-width fonts. A friendly nudge: If you’re still using the extra space, you might as well sign your work with your CompuServe address or your AOL screen name.

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Change is hard on all of us. Philosophically, I’m all for encouraging everyone to write as, um, he or she speaks, but can rarely bring myself to use the singular “they” in print. Someday, though. Innovation in language follows the same path toward acceptance as every other social change does. First people ignore it. Then they laugh at it. Then they attack it. Then it wins.

Or, rather: Then it wins


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.