The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Why Technology Has Not Killed the Period. Period.

A new study finds that the period serves important functions in the very text messages that are supposed to spell its demise

There are punctuation symbols that have largely gone the way of the dodo. But while National Punctuation Day, Sept. 24, may be an occasion to pour one out for the pilcrow, that’s not the case for the period. Despite much yammering about this familiar little dot being on life support, or already dead, the period is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And a new analysis of text messages—a medium that is supposedly spelling the period’s demise—helps illustrate why.

“Periods are not dead,” says computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who turned to his own trove of 157,305 text messages to analyze how the final period—a period at the end of a thought or sentence—was being used and shared his initial results exclusively with TIME. “They’re actually doing interesting things.”

These were messages that he sent or received over a period of about seven years with about 1,100 other people, and while he did notice that many of those texters severely declined in their use of periods over that time, he also found that there are a lot of reasons people are still double-tapping their smartphone screens. (Schnoebelen presents the caveat that this, of course, is just one man’s social network, but it also happens to be the largest linguistic analysis of SMS texting done to date, he says.)

One reason is structure. We’ve all gotten that loooooong text from a rambling friend, or jilted lover, or parent who apparently believes there are prizes to be awarded for Most Letters Used In a Single Sitting. Schnoebelen found that the lengthier a message was, the more likely it was to end in a period. While only 13% of messages that were shorter than 17 characters (about this length) ended in a period, 60% of messages that exceeded 72 characters got the period treatment. That’s about half the length of a maxed-out tweet.

Longer text messages, like news articles and novels and legal filings, need more punctuation and will continue to need it “because people would get lost without it,” as Schnoebelen puts it. And there is a natural tendency towards parallelism: If the text was long enough that we needed to use periods within it, it feels natural to plop another one on the end, even if text bubbles themselves often act as their own visual “thought stops here” indicator.

Schnoebelen also found that a period can be a signal of emotion. There has been much ink spilled about how the period, once neutral as water, now makes texters seem angry, irritated or insincere. And it certainly can connote all those feelings. Linguist David Crystal, who has lamented that his comments about language change got overblown by news outlets wishing the period better luck in the next life, gives a fine example:

John’s coming to the party [statement of fact]
John’s coming to the party. [Oh dear!]

But that gravity can also be kind, expressing sincere empathy when something bad has happened to a friend, or conveying the sincerity of your own feelings. Periods can help minimize the risk of looking careless or being unclear. Texts ending in a period, in Schnoebelen’s analysis, had a disproportionate amount of the words told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date,sad, seems and talk. By contrast, many of the words that tended to show up in texts that did not end with a period were more casual kinds of speech:lol, u, haha, yup, ok, gonna. (lol, it’s worth noting, is arguably used as a form of punctuation itself sometimes, like emoji.)

As the world of people we text with continues to expand, from just our closest friends to our colleagues, our distant relatives, businesses, customers, and so on and so forth, punctuation such as the period will help distinguish the registers we use. Because it’s not just whatever medium we’re using that determines how formal our speech is: it’s also who we’re talking to on whatever medium. “Punctuation is a way to convey standardness,” Schnoebelen writes. “Not everyone who texts with you wants to be (or thinks they can be) colloquial with you.”

By contrast, he discovered that one of the more unlikely places to find periods was bouts of sexting. Much as a query like “Pardon me, but might I remove your pants?” would seem out of place in most bedrooms, so too does assiduous punctuating have potential to ruin the mood.

National Punctuation Day is a day meant to celebrate these marks and signals that we sometimes misuse or abuse or take for granted. And one of Schnoebelen’s findings suggests how much more they are than mere organizing splotches and lines. He found that people, at least in his texting world, often mirrored each other when it came to final period use, reflecting back the same kind of style of whoever wrote the text. That means, in their small ways, periods can help build relationships and underscore group identity.

Sure, a complete absence of punctuation could serve the same purpose. But this finding also suggests that so long as there are people using periods, there will be other people sending them right back from whence they came, coming full circle.

Text by 

Filed under: 4►WRITE, ■ Punctuation Marks, ■ They say... & what they mean is..., ■ They write... & what they mean is..., ■ TIME

Recommended Brain Workout: Flex Your Multilingual “Muscles”

¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français? 你会说中文吗?
If you answered, “sí,” “oui,” or “会” and you’re watching this in English,
chances are you belong to the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority.
And besides having an easier time traveling
or watching movies without subtitles,
knowing two or more languages means that your brain
may actually look and work differently than those of your monolingual friends.
So what does it really mean to know a language?
Language ability is typically measured in two active parts, speaking and writing,
and two passive parts, listening and reading.
While a balanced bilingual has near equal
abilities across the board in two languages,
most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages
in varying proportions.
And depending on their situation and how they acquired each language,
they can be classified into three general types.
For example, let’s take Gabriella,
whose family immigrates to the US from Peru when she’s two-years old.
As a compound bilingual,
Gabriella develops two linguistic codes simultaneously,
with a single set of concepts,
learning both English and Spanish
as she begins to process the world around her.
Her teenage brother, on the other hand, might be a coordinate bilingual,
working with two sets of concepts,
learning English in school,
while continuing to speak Spanish at home and with friends.
Finally, Gabriella’s parents are likely to be subordinate bilinguals
who learn a secondary language
by filtering it through their primary language.
Because all types of bilingual people can become fully proficient in a language
regardless of accent or pronunciation,
the difference may not be apparent to a casual observer.
But recent advances in brain imaging technology
have given neurolinguists a glimpse
into how specific aspects of language learning affect the bilingual brain.
It’s well known that the brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant
and analytical in logical processes,
while the right hemisphere is more active in emotional and social ones,
though this is a matter of degree, not an absolute split.
The fact that language involves both types of functions
while lateralization develops gradually with age,
has lead to the critical period hypothesis.
According to this theory,
children learn languages more easily
because the plasticity of their developing brains
lets them use both hemispheres in language acquisition,
while in most adults, language is lateralized to one hemisphere,
usually the left.
If this is true, learning a language in childhood
may give you a more holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts.
Conversely, recent research showed
that people who learned a second language in adulthood
exhibit less emotional bias and a more rational approach
when confronting problems in the second language
than in their native one.
But regardless of when you acquire additional languages,
being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
Some of these are even visible,
such as higher density of the grey matter
that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses,
and more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language.
The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life
can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia
by as much as five years.
The idea of major cognitive benefits to bilingualism
may seem intuitive now,
but it would have surprised earlier experts.
Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap
that slowed a child’s development
by forcing them to spend too much energy distinguishing between languages,
a view based largely on flawed studies.
And while a more recent study did show
that reaction times and errors increase for some bilingual students
in cross-language tests,
it also showed that the effort and attention needed
to switch between languages triggered more activity in,
and potentially strengthened, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
This is the part of the brain that plays a large role
in executive function, problem solving, switching between tasks,
and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information.
So, while bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,
it does make your brain more healthy, complex and actively engaged,
and even if you didn’t have the good fortune
of learning a second language as a child,
it’s never too late to do yourself a favor
and make the linguistic leap from, “Hello,”
to, “Hola,” “Bonjour” or “你好’s”
because when it comes to our brains a little exercise can go a long way.

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►WRITE

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