What Does Gen Z Have Against Question Marks

How young people are rewriting the rules of punctuation

June 30, 2021 10:37 am
A question mark can be used to express divergent tones — and it isn’t always used for questions.
A question mark can be used to express divergent tones — and it isn’t always used for questions.
credit: Roman Prysiazhniuk, ContemporAd

Punctuation can be scary. This might seem like a strange thing for me to say, as a person whose job it is to write sentences that rely on punctuation in order to effectively communicate ideas, but when I’m not contractually required to use those periods, commas and question marks, I tend to forgo them altogether.

Older colleagues of mine have noticed my lack of punctuation over Slack — a platform more similar to text messaging in terms of informality — particularly when I ask a question without the appropriate mark at the end of it. To me, a Gen-Zer, punctuation when messaging on this type of platform often invokes the same fear and panic as when someone responds to me with a single “k.”

As I’ve written in the past, texting the words “okay, kk and k” all have different meanings, but “k” is by far the deadliest:  “When you send a ‘k,’ what you’re saying is: I don’t care what you’ve said and I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Or, as Urban Dictionary so eloquently puts it, it’s a ‘text you receive from your girlfriend, really meaning fuck you.’ A single K is cold, it cuts quick but deep. And if you get a k period (k.), don’t go home for at least 48 hours.”

This is why younger people are more likely to ditch it in casual conversation — and maybe feel a touch of panic when their boss slacks them a message with something as seemingly mundane as a period at the end.

“I have found that younger people are less likely to use punctuation in texting,” linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, an essential read on how the internet has influenced the English language and the way we now communicate, tells InsideHook. “The final period is less common among younger people especially in a context like texting or instant messaging or Slack chats, where you’re sending each message sort of one by one.”

When composing a longer message like an email or even a long text message, those same people are more likely to use proper punctuation, notes McCulloch. “But for shorter messages that are sent one by one, the final punctuation seems to indicate a particular tone of voice.

“An example of this is you still see younger people using the period sometimes, but they tend to use it to add a note of finality, or to add a note of seriousness or gravitas, which is sometimes combined if the message itself indicates sarcasm. So if you send someone a message that reads, ‘What.’ Period. That can be indicated as sort of a flat question, or maybe you’re angry, or there’s something else going on there. So it’s not so much that younger generations aren’t using punctuation at all, it’s that they’re using it for something different, which is this tone-of-voice function,” she says.

A question mark, too, can be used to express different things — and it isn’t always just for questions. “It can be used on statements to indicate a rising intonation,” says McCulloch. 

Additionally, when conversing on platforms that favor shorter messages, punctuation isn’t really necessary at all since you can distinguish between thoughts with line or message breaks. It’s why you might not use a question mark when texting a question: the receiver can discern that it’s an inquiry with some pretty obvious context clues. 

“There are often other things in the sentence that tell us whether something is a question, if it begins with a word like what or who, or if it begins with the verb and the subject in the other orders,” says McCulloch. “So something like, ‘Is there a problem’ versus ‘There is a problem.’ The word order is very clearly telling you that it’s a question, so the question mark is additional to that. It’s supplementing that meaning. And if the order is enough, then you don’t need to include the question mark unless perhaps you’re particularly incredulous.”

The person we’re speaking to is also an important factor in determining whether we’ll use proper punctuation. “If you’re talking to one of your colleagues who uses formal punctuation, maybe you’ll use a question mark. But if you’re texting with your kid who you know uses more informal punctuation, you might not use a question mark there because your kid will think you’re mad at them,” she explains.

Without even realizing it, you might even have altered the way you text when communicating with a particular person. My lack of punctuation has rubbed off onto my boyfriend, who recently told me he’s been skimping on it when texting me to match my communication style.

 “I think communication is a two-way street. It’s not that there’s one way to communicate and everyone needs to try to do that,” says McCulloch. “It involves listening to each other, paying attention to each other and working together to try to make the communication happen.”

So, next time you find yourself texting a young person, just know that the period you instinctively place at the end of your sentence might not mean what you think it does. At least not to the person on the receiving end.

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