The English language is ever-evolving from the strictures that many of us learned in what decades ago were called — not coincidentally — grammar schools. These days, nouns morph into verbs and prepositions recklessly bring up the rear of sentences, the sorts of developments that alarm linguistic purists but have found acceptance in mainstream writing. And now, atop the preposition disposition, a grammatical guardian is sounding a new alarm about how sentences end.
They end, of course, with a period, that venerable piece of punctuation that Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines as “the mark of punctuation (.) used to indicate the end of a declarative sentence.” In other words, unless it’s a question or an exclamation, the sentence isn’t so without the dot.
Alas, increasingly it isn’t so, according to a British expert named David Crystal, whose view found its way into a story by The New York Times. The Times says he has written more than 100 books on language; one of is titled Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation, so you know where he is coming from — er, from whence he is coming. As a former master of original pronunciation at Shakespeare’s Globe theater, he is well-imbued in the English language’s linguistic legacies.
Crystal can live with the extirpation of the Elizabethan-era “thou” and “thee;” the 21st-century development he decries is the passing of the period. And who is to blame for the death of the dot? Ironically, the dot.coms — or more specifically — how their products are utilized by younger generations.
Crystal notes that the rise of texting, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other services encourages an informal style that eschews the period. It starting with the widespread use of the Internet in the ’90s, says Crystal, when pixels liberated word purveyors from paper and enabled all manner of reckless stylistic abandon. Social media have only accelerated the trend.
Maybe so. Most grammarians have long recognized that in many forums, spoken speech is more informal than the written word and not all rules apply; social media is a finger-flicking extension of the spoken. And, when texting, those punctuation buttons on the bottom of the screen — or even on the next screen — can be too much hassle to reach in the immediacy of text-time. And Twitter, with its character limit, can render punctuation expendable.
The danger is that decline of the dot could make its way into more formal writings in academia, government, business, even (egads!) journalism. Actually, it already has; The New York Times, casting aside the conventions of the newspaper’s hidebound repute, published the above-mentioned story with absolutely no periods. It was choppy in places, but the reader caught the meaning of the story just fine.
Nonetheless, the millions of guardians of the language should not countenance the demise of the dot. Among many functions, the period helps separate thoughts. It adds clarity and gives the reader a rest. It prevents a sentence from wandering into witlessness, and that is just a sampling of its utility.
No, we need the period. It has served the English tongue well for at least a millennium now, and casting it aside would mean the end of the sentence as we know it.