My first brush with linguistics came from the most unexpected of sources. While I’ve always been aware that a language can change after thousands of years, it had never before occurred to me that it can change in the span of a generation.
College electives, at least in my corner of the world, are rarely an exciting affair. The same held true for a sociology class I had in the second semester of my sophomore year. Aside from its lack of direct relevance to my psychology degree, the boring af class was held at seven in the morning on a Monday.
Worst still, the class was held by a 70-something professor who was beginning to forget what class he was teaching. Along with a fading memory, old age had given him a proclivity for branching into unrelated topics that would leave me half asleep.
But one cold December morning, he received a text message on his phone.
He sighed at us, “I don’t understand what the younger generation is saying these days. What does af mean? And why are you afraid of punctuation marks?”
Is Gen Z Really Afraid of Punctuation Marks?
The answer is: yesn’t
Let me explain: Gen Z doesn’t actually think full stops are inherently scary. So where does this misconception come from? Many of the memes and jabs at Gen Z’s fear of basic grammar rules are reactions from older generations to articles like this, which talk about the reasons as to why Gen Z can find punctuation intimidating. A quick read of the articles discussing this phenomenon give a reasonable explanation, either by Gen Z or actual linguists, as to why young people these days use less punctuation marks.
But of course it was easier to mock Gen Z.
My college professor took a more academic approach to the matter. About five minutes of listening to his class explain slang terms Urban Dictionary style, he grabbed a marker and started to list down all of the new words he was learning. Lit became an adjective describing the quality of being trendy or enjoyable and af turned out to mean ‘as f**k’.
This brought us to the topic of Gen Z’s punctuation usage, or rather, the lack thereof.
What Is Paralinguistics?
Paralinguistics is an element of language that conveys meaning without the use of words. This can encompass anything from tone, gestures, facial expressions, and even vocal pitch used in delivering a statement. In some cases, how you say something can be more important than what you say.
A recent example of how drastically paralinguistics can change meaning is the recent controversy surround U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris was seen wiping her hand on her trousers after shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Wiping one’s hand after shaking somebody else’s conveys disgust, an implication further compounded by the spike of anti-Asian hate in the U.S. following the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not to say that Harris is racist, but that the implication of the gesture in a greater societal context didn’t come off as friendly.
Physical gestures like this can only be inferred and interpreted in real life, though. Unless you’re on a call with someone, most if not all of these paralinguistic elements can’t be seen and, therefore, can’t be interpreted.
The Pew Research Center calls Gen Z a generation of ‘digital natives who have little or no memory of the world as it existed before smartphones’. Our generation practically lives online, spending an average of 4.5 hours per day on social media, and hating phone calls, let alone video calls. To adapt to our new digital environments, Gen Z created an entirely new system of punctuation to help convey tone and meaning.
This is the reason why Gen Z rarely uses punctuation marks in casual environments like Twitter or texting. Depending on how it’s used, a question mark can come off as questioning the other speaker, casting doubt on their knowledge or trustworthiness. An exclamation mark in a potentially sharp sounding sentence does not indicate surprise, but expresses anger. But the most dangerous of these punctuation marks is the full stop or period.
Caleb Melby gave a simple way to visualize how a period can be hostile. The solution? Finish each sentence that ends with a period by saying ‘period’ out loud. This way, you can hear what a sentence means in Gen Z’s paralinguistic system. Each sentence comes off as more serious, abrupt, and slightly aggressive.
The serious tone that a full stop or period introduces into a conversation also marks a transition from the informal to the formal, making a message less emotionally welcoming. Every Gen Z, and heck, even Millennials, likely know that feeling of anxiety that wells up in your throat when you open a message that has complete punctuation, proper capitalization, and zero emojis in sight. Even if the sender didn’t mean to come off as mean, the form in which the message was composed feels passive aggressive. It holds the receiver at arms length, nails digging into their shoulders to convey that the sender may not be too happy about the receiver.
The Death of Proper English (?)
The unconventional ways that Gen Z has decided to use language online has raised concerns from older folks about the death of punctuation. There’s this slippery slope mentality around it that suggests Gen Z will turn English into an incoherent mush with their dislike of basic punctuation.
Previous generations clinging to old ways is a story as timeless as younger generations being upstarts. Grammar Nazis themselves have been around since time immemorial, even pre-dating the Nazis they’re named after.
Yoshida Kenko, a Buddhist monk and writer from Japan’s Muromachi period, wrote of new fangled changes in language:
“The ordinary spoken language has also steadily coarsened. People used to say ‘raise the carriage shafts’ or ‘trim the lamp wick,’ but people today say ‘raise it’ or ‘trim it.’”
As my fellow Gen Z’ers would say: Same energy.
@jamesmadison501 had a point, though: Punctuation marks didn’t always exist.
According to Latin punctuation in the classical age, Greek and Latin used to be written in a style called scriptio continua, which I promise isn’t a Harry Potter spell. Translated as ‘continuous script’, scriptio continua describes writing that had no punctuation marks or spaces. It sounds like a headache to read but that’s how the Greeks and Romans wrote in antiquity.
Now, imagine bearded men in togas and laurels complaining about how people these days are deteriorating their mental faculties by not learning how to read without these new fangled punctuation marks.
That said, if scriptio continua worked so well for the ancient Greeks and Romans, then why were punctuation marks invented?
In Eats, shoots & leaves, Lynne Truss relates how the printing press turned punctuation marks mainstream. While some languages were already using punctuation marks prior to the introduction of mass printing, it was the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press that allowed for their use to be standardized. Printing presses, unlike Catholic monks, could produce more even letters with consistent spacing.
The increase in legibility allowed for people to read at a faster pace. This was a welcome change since this meant it was easier for literate people to read aloud to the masses, who were largely illiterate. But a faster reading pace also meant they needed an easier way to figure out how a sentence is structured.
The Aldine Press, a Venetian printing press established in 1494, played a role in popularizing punctuation marks that are still commonplace today. Among their greatest hits are commas, semicolons, parentheses and, you guessed it, the full stop.
But the trend of punctuation adapting to new technology didn’t stop there.
Another big change would come with the invention of the typewriter. Think of any emails or messages you may have received from a Boomer or just anyone who’s been around long enough to have used a typewriter. You might notice that some of them put two spaces after their punctuation marks. While this looks strange to us Microsoft Word natives, the use of a double space after a punctuation mark was a necessity back in the days of mechanical typing.
I was fortunate enough to have experienced this personally. The first person to teach me how to type was an older cousin who had gotten her hands on a typewriter. She pointed to the long, steel arms that popped out of the typewriter whenever a key was pressed, calling them steel types. Each steel type had the same amount of space allotted to the character they produced, regardless of the size of the character itself. This meant that even the teensy full stop mark took up a lot of space.
The solution to keeping the text easy to read? Double spaces after each punctuation mark.
The unpopularity of punctuation marks among Gen Z is just another one of these changes influenced by technology. An article by Jeff Guo for the Washington Post notes an interesting observation on how younger people text these days. Guo remarks that the full stop, at least in texting, has been supplanted by the use of line breaks.
This simply means that more people are typing out single sentences and sending these before starting their next sentence. By using line breaks, Gen Z’ers are able to mark when their sentences end without the risk of accidentally alienating the receiver by using a full stop. This method of punctuation-less punctuation is supported by how smartphones today allow us to efficiently text in fragments.
What Gen Z’s Paralinguistics Teaches Us
There are two things we can learn from how Gen Z uses language. First is that it’s possible to succinctly convey tone through text and, secondly, that technology helps shape the direction in which a language develops.
Gen Z’s seemingly illiterate non-usage of punctuation marks is actually a novel way of approaching the barriers to connection and understanding that text-based communication poses. Knowing this, we can hopefully keep an open mind to possible future changes in the English language and not treat it the way African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been treated.
The break-neck pace of technology also means that we have more than just AI and interstellar travel to look forward to. In the same way that the printing press, typewriter, and smartphone have helped shaped the way we communicate, there’s bound to be new tech on the horizon that will change English as we know it.
But what about the Grammar Nazis and prescriptivists who are averse to these changes? Will the snowflake generation kill the full stop and English itself?
British writer David Crystal explains why these stalwart preservers of the English language can actually be language killers.
In A Little Book of Language, Crystal writes, “Languages have no existence apart from the people who use them. And because people are changing all the time, their language changes too, to keep up with them. The only languages that don’t change are dead ones.”
After all, if Shakespeare could make up words as he pleased then we can all change language to better serve our present day needs.
If you want to see more of Gen Z’s improper use of language, check out The Gen Z Handbook | Slang, Humor, and Memes from Generation Z which is an article I wrote about the ~groovy~ new lingo them youngins are using these days.