New research suggests that the rapidly changing language of texting is happening for a reason. The study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, found that punctuation often carries a particular meaning in text messages: it conveys negativity.
The new study expands on previous research, which found that texts that included a period were viewed as less sincere than texts without a period.
“We are interested in how the reading of text messages might differ from the reading of more formal language, such as essay or fiction. Although it’s a written form of language, text messaging has a lot in common with face-to-face conversations, with the fast back and forth between two people,” explained study author Celia Klin, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University.
“In contrast with a face-to-face conversation, however, texters can’t rely on extra-linguistic cues such as tone of voice and pauses, or non-linguistic cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures. In a spoken conversation, the cues aren’t simply add-ons to our words, but they convey critical information. A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words.”
“We wanted to know if texters are able to convey the same types of meaning without access to these extra- and non-linguistic cues,” Klin explained to PsyPost. “Although text messaging, and other forms of digital communication, are often used for social communication, texters have a limited set of tools available to them to convey a rich set of meanings.”
“It’s been suggested that one way that texters add meaning to their words is by using “textisms” — things like emojis, irregular spellings (heyyyy) and irregular use of punctuation (???). Studies of large collections of text and email messages have found what most people would expect: people use these types of textisms. In our experiments, we ask if the people reading the texts understand the textisms. That is, do they actually add, or change, the meaning of a text message?”
“More generally, this research is motivated by our interest in taking advantage of this unique moment where we can observe language evolving in real time,” Klin said. “What we are seeing with electronic communication is that, as with any unmet language need, new language constructions are emerging to fill the gap between what people want to express and what they are able to express, with the tools they have available to them.”
The new study, which consisted of three experiments with 137 participants in total, found that one-word texts were understood as more negative when they included a period.
The findings suggest that punctuation in text messages can help to convey meaning and intent.
“The take away is that anything we include in our text message — the punctuation we choose, the way that words are spelled, a smiley face — can change the meaning,” Klin explained. “People use what they have available them to when they text. Because they don’t can’t use tone or voice or facial expressions, for example, they use things like punctuation to add to or change the meaning of the words. The hope, of course, is that the meaning that is understood is the one we intended.”
In all the experiments, the participants read and rated text exchanges that began with a question (such as “I got a new dog. Wanna come over?”) followed by a one-word response. The experiments examined positive responses (yeah, sure, ok), negative responses (no, nah, nope), and ambiguous responses (maybe, fine, or alright).
“In the current research, the experimental participants read texts exchanges and evaluated their meaning. But they weren’t actively involved in a texting exchange. They were passive observers,” Klin told PsyPost.
“An important extension of the research would be to have a situation that more closely mimics actual texting, but in the lab where we can observe how different cues, such as punctuation, abbreviations, emojis, contribute to people’s understanding. The research also does not tell us anything about factors that should influence texters’ understanding, such as the social relationship between the two texters, or the topic of the text exchange.”
“We might expect, for example, that in a more formal texting exchange, readers might expect punctuation to follow more formal rules, and thus, interpret a period as simply indicating the end of a sentence.”
“Expressing ourselves in a text a linguistic challenge,” Klin added. “But people are very clever linguistically. In fact, we’d argue that language is one of the most complex and remarkable skills that people have. So, not surprisingly, we’ve risen to the challenge. We are increasingly finding ways to communicate what we want to communicate.”
“This is what language evolution looks like. With the rapid advancement of technology, this is a wonderful opportunity to observe language as it evolves in real time. There’s the tendency, for people throughout history, to believe that the evolution of language is all in the past, and whatever language was like when they learned it should be the end of the evolutionary process. Not so! We don’t speak or write exactly like our great grandparents did, and our great grandchildren won’t speak or write exactly like we do.”
The study, “Punctuation in text messages may convey abruptness. Period“, was co-authored by Kenneth J. Houghton and Sri Siddhi N. Upadhyay.