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It's not what we were taught in English class, but the evolution of punctuation isn't something to fear

Emmy J. Favilla is Global Copy Chief and creator of the BuzzFeed Style Guide and author of A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.

If a friend texts me with a particularly exciting bit of news, or a bizarre anecdote about their day, I'll admit that sometimes before I can even find the words to respond accordingly, I'll sling a !!!!!!! to convey just how thrilled or shocked I truly am. (I do get to the words eventually… usually.)

Language evolves. This much we can all agree to be true. It's why we no longer use the word "shan't" but do use words such as "adulting" and "virality" – although you won't find either of the latter in the most recent edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary – and end sentences with prepositions with abandon. And while perhaps we can't all agree that language has in recent decades changed for the better, we'd be remiss to acknowledge that punctuation has indeed evolved to be more expressive than ever, harnessing the capacity to add tone beyond just a question or an exclamatory phrase.

Our present-day approach to using punctuation, especially thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the web, is nothing short of beautiful. From the humble tilde to an arsenal of emojis at our fingertips, we've come a long way from the medieval punctus, that's for sure.

The tilde pair, for example, often used to impart levity or sarcasm, has become the punctuation mark we didn't realize we so desperately needed. It's hard to pinpoint the birth of this accidental hero in its newfangled sense, but somewhere, somehow, it moved beyond the confines of its use exclusively in the Spanish language and to denote the word "approximately" in English and into a space where it has allowed us to express things we were previously unaware a punctuation mark or boldface or italic font could express. It functions in myriad ways an adorable asterisk pair could never: for ~whimsical~, self-deprecating, sarcastic or ironic emphasis.

Tildes now acknowledge tired clichés or emphasize the ridiculousness of words with an awareness that says, "Yeah, this is silly, but I'm going to use it anyway." It gives us a way to distance ourselves from the words we've just typed, almost as if to protect ourselves from being accountable for them. And sometimes tildes simply function as a more droll pair of asterisks, for emphasis when, say, italics aren't available (e.g., on Twitter, in texts) or when shout-y all caps may seem too severe: "I don't typically wear things that necessarily show off my ~hourglass~ shape" or, "This, despite what the ~mainstream media~ would have you believe."

The tilde is far from the only addition to everyday communication. In the absence of the perfect GIF, sometimes prose alone just doesn't cut it in the expression department – specifically when you want the reader to envision a response in the form of particular physical action. In these cases, it's common practice to enclose said nonverbal expression in either asterisks or colons (or double colons, if nostalgia for the days of beta internet moves you). For instance:


:twirls around the room:

::gives side-eye::

And, apologies to all my former English teachers, but the comma splice is back in business, often seen running about town used to create a deliberate tone of breezy aloofness – especially on social media or in texts: "He's already moving in with his new girlfriend, I can't even deal" or "lol remember how much teachers hated run-on sentences, like get a life they're so cool now."

And who would have ever thought we'd see a time when the period – the building block of our very language, punctuation-wise – would be able to transform an innocent one-line message into a seemingly threatening or aggressive imperative? An era when proper punctuation was, potentially, terrifying?

There's a simple reason behind the period's new-found social status as the bully in town: its super-chill arch-nemesis, the line break. Communication via text or any form of social media allows us to indicate the end of a sentence by pressing "send" – making use of the period in these media essentially unnecessary and, by extension, seemingly expressive of a more serious or formal tone than perhaps intended:

Talk to you later.

That's fine.

As evidenced by my tendency to use standalone punctuation marks as a response in texts or other forms of direct messaging, we no longer even need text to express a particular sentiment. Punctuation marks alone have the ability to speak volumes. Let's take a look at the possibilities and possible interpretations:

! = Wow! Can convey either positive or negative shock or moderate excitement.

!!!! = Muted shrieks, as a response to really awesome news. May also signify a dropped-jaw, open-mouth, no-words situation.

???? = Utter confusion. A next-level "What happened?" or "Annnnd… what's the problem?"

?! or ?!?! (or a similar sequence) = A more positive spin on ????, this signifies the anticipation for an answer, often with an expectation of good news.

…… = No words, disbelief. Usually negative connotation.

Then we have emojis – which are, of course, the most evolved punctuation marks of all. An emotional powerhouse, the emoji has the incredible ability to lend mood to otherwise moodless phrasing.

Consider a potentially ambiguous sentence, Can't believe I did that, and how the addition of emojis function in the following examples:

Can't believe I did that. 😭 😫 😔

Can't believe I did that. 🙈 😜

Can't believe I did that. 😎 🎉 🏆

Can't believe I did that. 😡 🔫

In the first sentence, this speaker seems sad, regretful, guilty. In the second, they're embarrassed, but not in an entirely sincere way; they've let whatever they just did roll off their back, and they can see the humour in their misstep. In the third, this person is feeling proud and celebratory about the event that has just unfolded. And in the last, the sender is clearly angry and upset at themselves.

Amazing what power these lil' guys hold, huh?

Punctuation marks are in the prime of their lives, and the ability to use them to deliver more nuanced expression is something people of all generations should be taking advantage of – and celebrating each day.


From the archives: Globe staffers celebrate their favourite emojis