Does Punctuation In Text Messages Matter?

It's easy to assume that people are sloppy and/or emphatic texters just because the medium is a casual one. But does punctuation in text messages matter in determining their meaning? New research, via Pacific Standard, suggests punctuation does indeed have a significant role to play in texting, doing more to make up for a low word count than you might even realize.

Psychologists publishing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior set out to determine whether even the simplest of punctuation marks, a period, affects how text messages are understood by recipients. They had experimental participants read conversational exchanges, sometimes appearing as handwritten notes and sometimes presented as a series of text messages.

When the writer of a handwritten note failed to include a final period in their message, recipients thought of it no differently than the properly-punctuated one. But when the writer of a text message failed to include a final period in a text, recipients rated the message as more sincere. In other words, proper punctuation in this case made the text look less sincere. What the heck is going on here?

As the psychology researchers unsatisfyingly state: "We conclude that punctuation is one cue used by senders, and understood by receivers, to convey pragmatic and social information." So even if they don't consciously realize it, text message senders (who are also commonly receivers, of course) probably use punctuation to shape their brief messages to have more content than is included just in the words. If even a simple period can have an effect, just think of what those strings of exclamation marks must be doing!!!

However, it's a little weird that more careful punctuation is taken to be the possible sign of a texting liar. Maybe it's because using proper punctuation gives the message some additional emphasis, and only liars feel the need to emphasize what they're saying. Maybe it's because more spontaneous (and punctuation-free) messages don't appear to be the product of deliberation and, relatedly, manipulation.

Certainly, and as usual, more research is required. Until then, enjoy obsessing even more over whether your latest crush included that crucial period or not in your latest text conversation!

Images: javiindy/Fotolia, Giphy