Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

I do remember Mr Watts complaining about her sentences sometimes forgetting to include full stops. A sentence would just break off and leave the eye to plunge into vacant space. When he raised this, Grace asked him, What would you rather do? Sit with your feet dangling off the end of a wharf or have them shoved inside stiff leather shoes?

It’s a telling analogy. Language and fashion are similar in many ways, being everyday expressions of identity subject to forces both personal and social; they align most familiarly in the word style. ‘Language is like dress,’ Simeon Potter writes in Our Language. ‘We vary our dress to suit the occasion.’ Formal occasions call for formal attire and formal language; informal situations permit the opposite.

Footwear, though, is not how the comparison usually manifests, so the image of feet – bare and swinging or constrained by hard leather – injects novelty into a timeworn metaphor (if not an altogether threadbare one). Grace’s use of it is skilful and amusing, albeit biased against formal registers. She also applies it specifically to sentence-final punctuation.

A word is a notoriously tricky thing to define; a sentence is easier, because it nearly always ends in a full stop (or question mark, exclamation mark, or trailing ellipsis). At least it did traditionally, once we began separating sentences. But the rise of electronic communication has led to full stops in many contexts being seen as superfluous, even undesirable, because they convey a brusque or vexed tone. It’s no coincidence that emoticons and emoji now often appear in places of full stops.

As Tyler Schnoebelen wrote, in a post with data verifying the trend:

If the convention is to end sentences with a period, then a period is just a default. But once you start making the convention that you don’t have periods (like in texting and social media conversations), suddenly the period has room to take on expressive, emphatic connotations.

So go on – dangle those feet


Coda: Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics in 2012 provided a breakdown of what Mark Liberman calls the new semiotics of punctuation:

Comic titled "Professor Punctuation Mark Decoder". Top panel: a bearded, bald, bespectacled professor is typing an email in his office, which says: "From: Prof. Smith / ok". The blank space after "ok" is highlighted with a broken red circle and points to a panel below, which provides a code for the number of periods and what it means: No period: Everything is normal. Relax. One period: Uh oh. You're in trouble. Something is being left unsaid. Two periods: Probably a typo. Professors don't proof-read their emails. Three periods: Caution: Eye roll/sarcasm. Infer the opposite of what they actually wrote. Four periods: This says: "Why are you bothering me? I can't believe you want me to respond to this trivial matter." 5-8 periods: Replying to you was so boring, I leaned on the keyboard by accident and didn't notice. 9+ periods: Your advisor is a teenager or is going crazy. Better look for another one. Exclamation point: Rarely used. Displaying emotions is for the weak. Question mark: Rarely used. Professors don't ask questions, they make statements. Comma, colon, semicolon: Rarely used. Requires the use of more than one sentence.


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