Grammar Guerrilla: Punctuation Is Not Mean Spirited. Full Stop.

Guerilla-GorillaAccording 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 commonvulgar, 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.’

Resources

  1. How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
  2. Grammar Guerilla: Resources For Aspiring Writers
  3. The Cruelty of Nominalism (1)
  4. Derryck Green: The New Antiracism Is A New Religion
  5. The Expensive, Therapeutic Narcissism Of Social Justice
  6. Contra Favoritism: James’ Response To Injustice In The Church As A Model For Our Response To Racism
  7. What Is Really Going On? Watch This Video
  8. Stella Morabito: Emotional Manipulation Is Baked Into The Revolution
  9. Heidelcast 69: Stella Morabito On Political Correctness
  10. Lesbian Atheist: Nature, Science, And Facts Matter
  11. The Social Consequences Of Subjectivism
  12. Resources On Defining Reformed
  13. Nothing New About “Safe Spaces” At Yale
  14. Discomfort As Ground For Silencing Dissent
  15. Shrieking Yale Undergrad

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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10 comments

  1. This is the first I’ve heard that punctuation is now considered “hurtful.” But nothing surprises me any more. I wonder how much an attitude like this has been influenced by the exponential growth of communication via text messaging, much of which (I’ve observed, looking over a few shoulders) seems to be in the form of little bursts of words – no complete sentences – sent in rapid succession. With the fragmented, unstructured transmission of expressed thoughts(?) like this it’s a wonder how any of these youngsters can write well enough to produce material suitable for academic papers.

  2. Re.: Your headline: “Grammar Guerrilla: Punctuation Is Not Mean Spirited. Full Stop.”
    “Mean Spirited” ought to be hyphenated. 😉

    • Actually, that proposal is incorrect. Dr Clark was right at the first.

      The hyphenation rule for compounds of this type is that they are hyphenated when placed before the noun that they qualify, but not following it. So the following forms are correct:

      Punctuation is not mean spirited.

      Mean-spirited punctuation does not exist.

      That is the case on both sides of the Pond, e.g. as found in the Oxford Style Manual (British English) and the Chicago Manual of Style (American English).

      The Chicago Manual of Style gives the following example similar to the one under consideration:

      open-ended question.

      the question was open ended.

      This rule is followed for compounds of adjective+participle, adjective+noun, noun+adjective, adverb (not ending in ‘ly’ or containing less, least, more, most, or very)+adjective or participle, noun+gerund (adjectival form), noun+participle, participle+noun, and adjectival phrases.

      See the style manuals for hyphenation with other compounds.

      • Kevin,

        Thanks for this. It’s helpful. So, it seems as if British and American usage varies, that American usage is typically a little more lenient regarding compound adjectives than is UK usage. It does seem, thus far, that compound adjectives are hyphenated before the adjective, as you suggest.

        Fowler, The Little Brown Handbook (1986), 459 agrees with you re omitting the hyphen when the adjective follows the noun.

  3. I can’t find the article now, but I read in “Education Week” recently an article in which a fellow-educator was “dismantling” systemic racism before his students by refusing to follow standard English capitalization rules.

    I kid you not.

    • Therefore, consistent with the format used in texting and other social media. In other words, if one were to text (or even e-mail) in normally structured sentences, complete with punctuation and capitalization, it would now be considered condescending and hurtful.

      Since it is the aim of the marxist/communist/socialists to pull down the wealthy under the guise of egalitarian redistribution of wealth, so it apparently also is with the elitists who want to eliminate anything resembling status quo. Given the reluctance of anyone to speak out against some of these things in a public forum under threats from a cancel culture or other censorship, there’s likely no end to it.

  4. Whole generations have been raised under so-called ‘critical pedagogy’, rather than within the tradition of critical thinking. Consider, for instance, Alison Bailey, Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Her 2017 paper ‘Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes’ contained the following:

    “The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy. To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life . . . the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living” (Burbules and Berk 1999, 46). In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.

    Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy.”

    Soundness and validity of argument, conceptual clarity, good judgment, and epistemic adequacy (i.e. knowing what you’re talking about) and thus science, reason, and rationality, conversation and debate are all part of the critical thinking tradition that must be destroyed (after she has achieved tenure, of course). Professors like Bailey are teaching methods of biased and prejudiced storytelling and counter-storytelling, appealing to emotions and subjectively interpreted experience.

    This is the curse of postmodernism. Alison Bailey bemoans that ‘In its quest for certainty, Western philosophy continues to generate what it imagines to be colorless and genderless accounts of knowledge, reality, morality, and human nature.’ For her, there is no standard of truth for knowledge, reality, morality, or human nature, only relative ones, and the current dominant one that is analytical is (according to Bailey) thereby white, male and systemically racist because it is not based on feelings and storytelling. She says, ‘The absence of color talk in philosophy is a marker of its whiteness’ , but she is heartened that at least one aspect of philosophy is corrupting the youth in our universities and schools: a philosophy of education based heavily on the work of Paulo Freire, whose ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ has become the neo-Marxist basis for many teacher training programmes.

    Alison Bailey teaches a course on ‘Race, Gender, and the Epistemologies of Ignorance’, with the text ‘Race and the Epistemologies of Ignorance’ on the required reading list. She claims that ignorance has its own epistemology, which she terms ‘wilful ignorance’ (possibly a parody of 2 Peter 3:5) and describes as ‘a carefully constructed oblivion that helps to maintain dominance or privilege.’

    Of course, university professors such as Bailey are not averse to using THEIR tenured positions of power, dominance and privilege to further a Marxist agenda.

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