Social media has radically changed the way we communicate, and you needn’t look further than your Twitter feed to see the way it has reshaped the written word. This is especially true in the case of punctuation. Thousand-year-old conventions like the period, the ellipsis, and the exclamation mark have been reinvented as stylistic devices used to overcome the limitations of the written word– limitations like the inability to express tone, cadence, and body language.
If you were born pre-internet, the nuances of this ever-evolving internet lingo can be difficult to crack but are important to understand, especially if you’re a brand looking to connect with a young audience. A sentence that means one thing to a baby boomer likely means something completely different to a millennial, which makes it easy for the meaning of online comments, replies, and mentions to get lost in translation.
To help bridge the communication gap, we’ve broken down some of the new rules of punctuation.
The Period (or Lack Thereof)
If there is one punctuation mark to blame for a communication breakdown between baby boomers and millennials, it’s the period. Traditionally used to indicate a full-stop, the period has evolved into more of a stylistic device— a way for millennials to indicate snark and even aggression. To a baby boomer the sentence “that’s fine.” is innocent, but to a millennial it likely reads as annoyed or even angry. Removing the period (that’s fine) assigns the sentence a neutral tone. Adding an exclamation mark (that’s fine!) indicates enthusiasm.
dont know if you guys have noticed but we’ve dropped all punctuation of any kind from stories written or edited by millennials
— Virginia Hughes (@virginiahughes) June 10, 2016
Like the period, the ellipsis has evolved from punctuation mark into a stylistic device used to convey tone online. Used mid-sentence, it indicates an awkward silence. Placed at the end of a sentence, it implies uncertainty or annoyance. Used alone in response to something, it reads as a passive-aggressive “are you serious?”. Baby Boomers and gen Xers, on the other hand, tend to use the ellipsis to mean “to be continued” or to indicate that their thought is not complete. Take the sentence, “I don’t know what I think of this report…”
To a baby boomer or gen Xer, this likely means the sender is still processing their thoughts or forming an opinion on the report. To a millennial, it reads as “I hated the report.”
bank account: please.. please stop buying things you dont need …,, i am dying
me: but… but i need really need this [looks around] …..bag of Mulch
— eric turtle (@dubstep4dads) February 21, 2018
The Comma Ellipsis
So how do millennials flag a thought as incomplete or uncertain if not with an ellipsis? Enter the comma ellipsis– the traditional ellipsis’s cool younger cousin. At first glance the off-the-cuff “,,,” may look like a typo, but there’s intention behind this three comma convention. Instead of passive aggression, it indicates uncertainty or uneasiness.
People have also begun to substitute periods for commas in ellipses to give more of an unsure, uneasy tone. I’m guilty of doing it a lot whenever I’m nervous about something I’m saying; like asking “are you sure,,,,” or saying “ok,,,” when I think someone is angry
— sara✨ (@nezahuaIpilli) March 4, 2018
The Question Mark
When posing a question online, millennials often drop the question mark– reserving it for text requiring a dash of flavour. Instead of indicating a literal question, the question mark often indicates an upswing in tone of voice. When deployed at the end of a sentence, this up-note inflection implies uncertainty or skepticism. For example, the expression “right??” is a tentative statement rather than a question.
I know the math seems off, but I think a girl I went to high school with has a daughter now thats older than me?
— Chris Kelly (@imchriskelly) April 12, 2018
For brands, learning the nuances of this complex digital language is key to understanding and communicating with young fans. Without a basic knowledge of the new rules of punctuation and grammar, the sentiment behind comments and mentions on social media are easily misinterpreted, and is there anything worse than mistaking a sarcastic “~love your product~” for a genuine “love your product!”?
When it comes to internet speak, the examples in this blog are only the tip of the socio-linguistic iceberg. In our next blog, we will cover the new-rules of symbols, atypical capitalization, and more. Be sure to check back!