According to a number of media stories (the original story appeared in the UK Telegraph) Generation Z, those born 1995–2015, find certain punctuation marks threatening. The argument is that the use of the period (“full stop” in the UK) in text messages (and presumably in direct messages (DMs) and the like is redundant, that the act of hitting send signals the end of a thought. Thus, the use of a period at the end of a thought is interpreted to mean: “this is the end of the discussion. I will hear no more.” A Cambridge University linguist—the story seems to be centered in the UK and Europe—has actually studied this and reached a considered conclusion.
One of the themes that has emerged in a number of different topics on the HB is the relation between fixity and change. It touches on the late-modern renewal of nominalism (see the resources below) and its correlate, the rise of late modern subjectivism, whether grammar is utterly fluid or whether the meaning of words is ever fixed and grounded in the nature of things (e.g., the definition of the adjective Reformed: does it mean whatever any evangelical Baptist thinks it means or does it mean what it has meant since the Reformed and Lutheran Churches and theologians began using it to distinguish one from the other in the middle of the 16th century until about last week?)
As I have noted frequently in this space (and in Recovering the Reformed Confession) we live in what scholars have called an age of liquidity, where everything seems to be in flux, where nothing is fixed. This is one of the characteristics of late modernity (as distinct from earlier periods in modernity). If the GenZ resistance to the period/full stop is a real phenomenon it might well signal the end complete collapse of modernity.
Before you write to respond, yes, I have read James Barr, yes, I am well aware that language changes, yes, the meanings of words change but if the reader will bear with me for just a moment I will endeavor to explain why language and grammar cannot be utterly fluid and why punctuation is necessary, why it is grounded in the nature of things.
Over time the usage of words does change. In the title of this essay I used the word mean in a relatively modern and informal sense. In older usage the word mean signaled something common, vulgar, or low. That was probably derived from its use in mathematics, where it signals the average. It can also signal the sense of “intend,” as in “what I mean to say is that punctuation is necessary.” I used it in the sense of “emotionally hurtful.”
Nevertheless, in the nature of things, the significance of words cannot be endlessly fluid or communication becomes impossible and social chaos ensues. Consider the significance of the words racism and anti-racism. There are two quite different definitions being used simultaneously and users do not seem to be aware that both are being used by groups who seem more or less unaware of the other sense. The older usage of racism signaled “to disparage someone on the basis of their membership in an ethnic group.” This prejudice was what Dr King and the original Civil Rights movement was attacking in the 1950s and 60s. It was against this he spoke when he said that we judge someone not on the basis of the color of their skin but on the basis of the content of their character. The late-modern, social-justice definition of racism intends to use the word much more broadly. In such usage it refers to almost any sort of injustice, whether or not ethnicity is in view. In this sense, when Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo speak of ‘anti-racism” they mean that anyone who disagrees with them is “racist,” i.e., such a person stands convicted of defending the utterly corrupt, unjust status quo. Experience says Baby Boomers (born 1944–64) and Generation Xers (1964–84) tend to assume the older definition and Millennials and Zoomers tend assume the re-definition. Has the word racism really evolved in its meaning? Certainly the re-definition is not universally understood or accepted. In my view, the re-definition is nonsense. It one means to say injustice there is a word for that: injustice or inequity.
The confusion over the definition of racism and its correlate, the apparent growing fear of punctuation, is grounded in the late-modern loss of confidence in the very existence of nature as a category. Millennials and Zoomers have been taught in school that there is no such thing as nature (fixity) and that everything is a social convention or construction. It was against this that the Deconstructionists have raged for the last 40 years. Sexuality, they argue, is nothing but a social construction. This is why they speak of multiple genders (rather than of two biological sexes). If everything is a convention, if nothing is grounded in the nature of things—if there is no such thing as a “nature of things”—then life is reduced to a struggle for power.
This is part of the explanation of why relatively prosperous, suburban young people are in the streets burning down less prosperous, urban neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Portland, and now Kenosha. This is why students at one of the most prestigious universities (see the video linked below) in the United States raged at a faculty member for daring to suggest that they be a little more inclusive about a Halloween costumes. They perceive that unjust authorities are attempting to impose an unjust system, which is merely a series of conventions, essentially a conspiracy, upon them. This is why young people, who have apparently never been told no in their lives, can only scream when police officers take them into custody. They cannot believe that there are no actual limits to their choices and when limits are imposed they are rejected as unjust.
There is such a thing as nature however. The very notion that everything is nothing but a convention is a claim about the nature of things. The Deconstructionists do believe in nature. They are simply rejecting the older definition of nature. When they tell us that the reader is utterly sovereign and may make of words whatever he will, they expect that the reader will do that to the next book he reads but not to the book presently in his hands or the writer’s project of undermining every other author’s ability to communicate, will be thwarted.
Grammar is rooted in the nature of things and so is punctuation. Yes, it is true that there have been cultures that did not use the sort of punctuation that we now use, e.g., Ancient Greek manuscripts used capital letters without spacing, but there were signals in the text to help the reader to interpret the text. Punctuation developed as a way for the writer to communicate his intent to the reader. Indeed, the Zoomer who is hurt by full stops in text messages believes in the necessity of some signals of authorial intent. It is only that he has substituted the send function for periods and arbitrarily assigned a malevolent or authoritarian intent to the period or full stop.
If you have paid attention you will have noticed that I have used a number of different punctuation marks in this essay. Among them, the period has featured prominently. I have also used commas, em dashes, and parentheses (brackets in the UK). I used them so that you, dear reader, would be able to follow my argument. They add clarity. As frustrated as a I am at this latest development in the collapse of the West, at no time did I intend to hurt your feelings.
It is true that particular punctuation marks are relatively arbitrary. A comma could signal the end of a thought and we might use a period in a list. Punctuation itself, the act of embedding a visible signal of authorial intend, however, is not arbitrary. That is grounded in the nature of things since authorial intent is unavoidable. It is true that hitting “send” can mean, I am finished with my thought but, in reality, people accidentally send emails and texts regularly. I myself have done so. We use periods, commas, and semicolons to aid communication. Hitting send is ambiguous and all the more so if there is no punctuation.
Had I written this using alternative spellings or without punctuation all manner of ambiguity and confusion would have arisen. That would not have helped communication between author and reader. It would have hindered it. Indeed, the entire Deconstructionist movement is nothing but literary vandalism, itself a move to gain power by breaking down friendly communication between neighbors and replacing it with the imposition of change by force. This is why we see young white women interjecting themselves between black people who are trying to communicate. They must create alienation and cut off communication in order to gain control and thus power. All of this has been amply illustrated on the HB (see the resources below).
Using punctuation is not an attempt to hurt but to help. It is not mean (in any sense of the word) to be clear. It is charitable. My own opposition to punctuation, in high school, was rooted in nothing more than stubbornness, ignorance, and laziness. These vices remain at work but have been clothed with high-sounding theories.
Do not fall for it. Nature exists just as surely as nature’s Creator exists. Neither can be avoided successfully for very long.’
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