If we lose the period over the course of the next decades or centuries, so be it. The prospect doesn’t bother me overmuch, even if I’m fond of using periods as a way of marking the completion of a “unit of sense,” or negotiating between multiple units. Still, I don’t think we’re losing the period, as a few recent pieces on the subject would suggest. And if we do lose it, I don’t think it will be the result of electronic communication or the informality of post-millennial children.
Last week, at the New York Times, Dan Bilefsky — following the work of David Crystal, a British linguist — wrote that the period “is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age[.]” The idea, illustrated humorously in a later piece by the Washington Post’s Jeff Guo, is that the interfaces we use for digital communication are eliminating the need for periods. Our messages are delivered in discrete units — or, again, “units of sense” — which make periods redundant. Now, the story goes, periods are “deployed as a weapon to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression[.]” They now have “an emotional charge.” Well, they always did.
After reading Bilefsky’s piece, I was convinced more than ever that periods are going nowhere. To begin with, his performative exercise — he removes almost all of the periods from the piece — undercuts his argument. His deletion of the periods is meant to show that the piece can be read without them, but, if you notice, a period manages to sneak into the text. Also, without the period in the final line (look for yourself), you can’t register whether or not it’s a question. But what proves the usefulness of periods should be obvious: you can read the piece more easily if they’re there.
Bilefsky’s piece — or any long piece without periods — is like a car without brakes. You can drive it, but you’d rather not. (And, anyway, why do all grammar pieces have to perform the argument they describe?) Of course, it’s fine not to use periods in text messages (or anywhere, if you don’t want to), but the idea that periods will be eliminated is denied by Crystal’s own work. In Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (a work cited by Bilefsky), he points out that many texts are getting longer (this includes novels), a fact which suggests that periods will stick around despite the omnipresence of texting:
But punctuation is important for more than just reasons of social expectation and acceptability. It has proved to be valuable in aiding swift comprehension, especially as texts have become longer, more complex, and more varied over the centuries. It helps writers to organize their thoughts on the page, and it helps readers to process continuous text with a minimum of discomfort. While it’s possible to read a piece of text without any punctuation at all and still understand it without ambiguity – as we saw at the very beginning of this book – such a task is undeniably more difficult.
There is something naive, too, about the idea that digital communication will retain the same quasi-poetic, line-broken, period-free form over the years. It’s advantageous for publishing and social media platforms (inasmuch as they aren’t the same thing) to allow for longer texts. It accounts for recent moves by Facebook (Instant Articles), the entire existence of Medium, and rumors that tweets will soon “go long.” Even on the internet, the period is as necessary as ever.
And we have a way of exaggerating the crossover effects between formal (Standard English) and informal modes (message speak) of written language. But the doubling of linguistic modes within a community is nothing new. As Crystal (again) notes, we have a name for this common development: diglossia. On this he couldn’t be more straightforward:
The arrival of the Internet is not the end of punctuation as we know it. Rather, as Hale and Scanlon suggest, we live in two punctuation worlds now – one standard, the other nonstandard. The situation parallels what we see in the more general linguistic scenario that sociolinguists call diglossia (the simultaneous use in a society of a language that has two contrasting varieties, such as Classical Arabic and colloquial Arabic) – only here we would need to call it digraphia.
Anyway, periods are hard to get rid of. Even Gertrude Stein, who once “felt that writing should go on” — that it should move encumbered between units of sense — returned to the period after their breakup:
Beside I had always like the look of periods and I liked what they did. Stopping sometime did not really keep one from going on, it was nothing that interfered, it was only something that happened, and as it happened as a perfectly natural happening, I did not believe in periods and I used them. I really never stopped using them.
Stein goes on to hint that periods have potential to be surprising, that they “might later come to have a life of their own to commence breaking up things in arbitrary ways.” In a historical moment when writers were gleefully deranging usage, she clings to this anarchic reliability. “I say recently,” she writes of periods, “I have felt that one could need them more than one had ever needed them.” Same.