Texting: Generations divided by text message rules

Punctuation is yet another barrier between the generations. Here Poppy McBeath and Tom Morton look at the issue from each side of the age divide

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Teenager Poppy McBeath is a student from Lancashire who is starting her A-levels next month

As a teenager, and speaking on behalf of Gen Z, I can say that whenever someone uses punctuation in a text message, it sends chills down my spine.

Immediately, when I see a message signed off with a full stop, I jump to the conclusion that I have caused offence in some way. There’s just something about it that creates a sense of unease; it seems too formal, blunt, and sometimes, a little passive aggressive. In fact, a full stop can completely transform the meaning of a sentence. Particularly since facial expressions and tone cannot be detected on messages, punctuation is one of the few ways to convey emotion.

Poppy McBeathPoppy McBeath
Poppy McBeath

Let’s use the example: ‘You’re hilarious’ vs ‘You’re hilarious.’ While some may argue that the full stop is innocuous, to Gen Z they have completely different meanings, with the latter much more satirical.

Additionally, they are highly unnecessary as it’s obvious that a message has finished due to the ‘bubble’ around a sent text. Oblivious to this, a friend of mine used to feel the need to use every punctuation mark when texting - something that my friends and I consistently derided her for. This ultimately meant that she received a handmade ‘Guide to Texting Like An Actual Teenager’ book for her birthday, to help her text more like a Gen Z rather than a ‘boomer.’

Sharing his view on this controversial topic, language expert Professor David Crystal claims that ‘people do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point’. Hence, when writing a longer message, I’m careful to do all I can to avoid using the ‘dreaded’ full stop, which ranges from sending each thought as a new message, or even placing an emoji between sentences.

So, unless you want to be misinterpreted as being rude over text, I’d suggest getting a Gen Z’er to write you their very own ‘texting guide’ for you too.

Tom Morton is the Early Editor for nationalworld.com and is old enough - just about - to remember the launch of Channel Four

Thank god, not all of us are like David Cameron.

Famously, the former prime minister would sign off texts LOL, thinking he was saving time and characters on writing “lots of love”, until former Sun and News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks put him straight. One hopes that he hadn’t used the same abbreviation when, say, commiserating with a friend over a parent’s death. 

Cameron’s generational misunderstanding was laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards in 2012 - but sadly, most of us over 40 will have had at least one cautionary (if less public) tale when dealing with text messages. 

In some ways this is nothing new. Language evolves. Wicked, sick and many other words have taken on new meanings across the decades. It's one of the ways that teenagers work out how to be different and forge and identity. But the pandemic-fuelled shift to remote working, and with it the increased use of chat programmes and particularly WhatsApp, have laid bare the pitfalls of the quick-communication age.

Putting a full stop on the end of a text message is spoiling for a fight, or being rude, it turns out. But in defence of sticklers, some of us like - or can’t help - sending messages that are grammatically correct. Call us pedants, but just because it’s typed on to a phone doesn’t mean it can’t be hyphenated properly. But now we find we are castigated for appearing cross. 

And you can also be reprimanded for seeming sharp if you simply reply OK or K to a message, when to most of us, it’s what we would say and it’s short and to the point.

You could say that using an emoji would be a better way - but in the course of checking these things I stumbled across a list of emojis that “only old people use” - among them the thumbs up, the OK, the grimacing face, the monkey with its hands over its face, the red heart… in short, all the useful ones.

My generation adapted to email many years ago, but we can't escape the feeling that we are adopters, not natives at this texting and messaging lark. The rules and the etiquette are not of our making, however much we try to keep up. So there we are, generations divided by a common language.

This side of the 40 watershed sees me feel tentative, wary of causing offence (or self-embarrassment), and very much a distance away from understanding younger colleagues and relatives. Goodness only knows what my mother makes of it all.