Good character references

When you’re texting, something as simple as a period can change the message’s entire tone. (Graphic by Kit Kolbegger)

By Kit Kolbegger

People interact with more words than ever before. Countless instant messages and texts are sent every day, to friends, family, partners and coworkers. According to Whatsapp, on its platform alone, 55 billion messages are sent by one billion people. Daily.

This instant, short-form communication has changed the way we use informal written language. Just ask Jazz Ghag. Ghag is a Paralegal student at Humber. She says sometimes, instant messages and texts can be hard to decode. Take, for example, a text ending with a period.

“If somebody texts a brief note with like a period, I’d be like, ‘Are you mad at me?’” she says.

A period is a single character, and yet, it means so much. “No” reads entirely differently than “No.” for so many people.

“What does that mean? What does a period indicate?” Ghag says. “You avoid putting periods for a reason. It’s very confrontational.”

Michelle McSweeney is a research associate at City University of New York. She also co-hosts a podcast called Subtext, which is about romance in a digital era. On the podcast, she and co-host Sarah Ellis help callers-in decipher texts and messages they’ve received.

She says punctuation has so much to do with tone.

McSweeney says that, for example, if she ended a message in a period it would indicate that it should be taken as solid fact: “Like take this to mean exactly the words that are on the page literally.”

She says it means the message is very serious.

The orthography and language of the internet are always changing, too. Take, for example, lol. It means “laughing out loud” — or at least that’s what it used to mean.

Jazz Ghag says she uses it as more of a placeholder than anything else.

“‘Lol,’ if I’m saying it, I’m not even laughing,” she says.

“You say lol all the time, but it’s very repetitive. It just becomes part of the lingo,” she says. “Like you’re doing something. ‘I’m eating lol.’ That’s not funny.

“I guess lol is kind of used because if you don’t write it, then it sounds like you’re mad.”

McSweeney says that lol serves as a way to soften a text.

It is used in the same way we might laugh in face to face conversation.

“It’s not that I’m laughing but I’m kind of saying, hey, reinterpret this based on what is going on in the world,” she says.

McSweeney says that it’s only natural that messages have taken on large amounts of tonality.

“I think as we moved away from so much face to face communication, we needed to recover some of that affective information,” she says. “I know when I send you something in writing with no intonation you can take it such a myriad of different ways.”

“I think we do that with our facial expressions with our intonation with our gestures all the time,” she says. She gestures broadly, vividly, as she talks all through her conversation. She proves her own point.

A person’s use of orthography online and their use of abbreviations serve another purpose, too, McSweeney says. They can mark someone as part of a certain group. She cites one of her favourite examples — the Dominican klk.

It comes from “que lo qué,” which is an inherently Dominican greeting. So, she says, only Dominicans really use it in their messaging.

“I’m so not Dominican, really, really not Dominican. And when my Dominican students would hear me say que lo que, they would be on the floor rolling laughing. Rotfl.”

McSweeney says people use these in-group markers because others use them. She says it serves to prove a connection.

“If someone writes klk to someone else it’s saying, hey I know that we’re both Dominican and I’m using this one little acronym that’s so strongly that, you’re gonna know that I am too, right. And I’m going to use it because we both use it.”

Often, internet language is learned by context. Most internet users never had it explained to them that a tilde (this little wiggly bit of punctuation ~) means sarcasm. They just picked up on it.

McSweeney says people have been searching for a way to indicate sarcasm forever, trying to create punctuation marks that fit. In the early days of the internet, a lot of users were computer programmers; the tilde, in programming languages, often means negation. It means that true should be false, and false should be true.

“It’s ‘not this,’” she says. “You look so well rested today. That is sarcastic. Because I mean the exact opposite. I think that a lot of these have actually come down from programming.”

While to millennials, a lot of textspeak and internet messaging is just a mode of communication, similar to using slang in day-to-day speak, there have been countless articles crying that the end is nigh for the English language.

There was handwringing from the Telegraph in April over the use of emojis “ruining the English language,” and as early as 2010, the BBC was writing articles on how the internet was changing the way people write. In 2012, even the Toronto Star ran an anti-textspeak piece called, “Does correct spelling matter to journalists?”

Sali Tagliamonte, a Canadian Research Chair in the field of linguistics, laughs when she talks about it.

Tagliamonte studied texting patterns in 2009, when cellphones still used T9, or predictive texting. The number pad on the phone housed all the letters; users would, for example, press 2 once, to make the letter “a” appear. To get a “z”, you would press 9 four times.

Tagliamonte’s students at the time offered up their instant messages, texts, and emails — and their Grade 12 English essays.

“Probably the most important finding was that there was no breakdown in grammar,” she says. There might be acronyms, or different spellings, she says, but, “It’s just completely superficial.”

The students switched “registers,” or modes of speaking, between the different methods of communication.

“What we found is that in texting people are a lot more flirty and they do more fun things,” Tagliamonte says. “The same people, when they’re emailing, become much more formal.”

She compares it to other methods of communication.

“It would be just like what you do when you’re writing a letter versus what you do when you’re talking to a friend.”

Tagliamonte points out that acronyms are often just used as punctuators or indicators of emotion, like the placeholder lol.

“The idea that kids are not using grammar is just ridiculous,” she says. “They’re actually using a written medium. It’s written language.”

The man often seen as a father to the study of internet linguistics tends to agree. David Crystal is an England-based linguist whose first article on the subject of internet linguistics was published in 1998.

The use of “c” for “see” dates back to Victorian times, he said in an email. And, of course, “OMG” dates back at least to a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill.

Crystal doesn’t believe that abbreviations tend to have much staying power. While speaking to middle schoolers, Crystal read a collection of texts and found no abbreviations at all. When he asked the children where the abbreviations had gone, the kids told him that abbreviating things just wasn’t one cool any more.

“One lad told me that he stopped abbreviating when his dad started!” Crystal wrote.

He suspects that things like the “emotive period” (that period at the end of text that says “No.” that strikes fear into the hearts of many, including Jazz Ghag) might stay around longer.

“Predictive text and extra message space reduced the need for abbreviations,” he said. But, with earlier needs to stay in strict character limits, people were already used to cutting out periods at the end of a sentence.

“The end of the sentence was unambiguously signalled by the screen width – which is unlikely to change. That then allowed the optional use of a period to emerge, which then took on a semantic value,” he wrote.

Ghag, student and millennial, brought up her own acronym when she talked about texting her friends. For her, it’s taken the place that lol might once have held for Crystal, Tagliamonte or McSweeney.

“The most common one I use is don’t kill me, dkm,” she says. “I only use it if I’m actually dying of laughter.”

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