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Emoji-Filled, Poorly Punctuated Texts Convey New Meaning

We’ve all been there: staring at a poorly punctuated, emoji-filled text and trying to make sense of it, while a mental keening over the death of proper communication starts up in the background. (Or maybe it’s just us.) As it turns out, grammar (or lack thereof), emoticons, and emoji have changed our interactions in a way too subtle for many of us to articulate — by enabling us to articulate the subtle.

Emoticons, emoji, irregular spellings and unconventional punctuation in text messages aren’t sloppy or a sign that written language is going down the tubes — these “textisms” help convey meaning and intent in the absence of spoken conversation, according to newly published research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

“In contrast with face-to-face conversation, 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,” said Binghamton University Professor of Psychology Celia Klin. “In a spoken conversation, the cues aren’t simply add-ons to our words; they convey critical information. A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words.”

“It’s been suggested that one way that texters add meaning to their words is by using “textisms”– things like emoticons, irregular spellings (sooooo) and irregular use of punctuation (!!!).”

A 2016 study led by Klin found that text messages that end with a period are seen as less sincere than text messages that do not end with a period. Klin recently took this research further, conducting experiments to see if people reading texts understand their correspondents’ textisms, asking how people’s understanding of a single-word text (e.g., yeah, nope, maybe) as a response to an invitation is influenced by the inclusion, or absence, of a period.

“The results of the current experiments reinforce the claim that the divergence from formal written English that is found in digital communication is neither arbitrary nor sloppy,” 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. All the elements of our texts — the punctuation we choose, the way that words are spelled, a smiley face — can change the meaning.”

Honestly, in a time when emoji are considered the fastest growing language in the world, this study has the feel of an aged alien visiting millennial Earth for the first time. Klin seemed particularly fascinated by the use (or disuse) of the full stop.

“In formal writing, such as what you’d find in a novel or an essay, the period is almost always used grammatically to indicate that a sentence is complete. With texts, we found that the period can also be used rhetorically to add meaning,” said Klin. “Specifically, when one texter asked a question (e.g., I got a new dog. Wanna come over?), and it was answered with a single word (e.g., yeah), readers understood the response somewhat differently depending if it ended with a period (yeah.) or did not end with a period (yeah). This was true if the response was positive (yeah, yup), negative (nope, nah) or more ambiguous (maybe, alright). We concluded that although periods no doubt can serve a grammatical function in texts just as they can with more formal writing — for example, when a period is at the end of a sentence — periods can also serve as textisms, changing the meaning of the text.”

Spread the word among both the olds and the youngs: There’s power in grammar — perhaps especially when it’s not there. [Winky face]

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