Punctuation confusion | Inquirer Opinion

Punctuation confusion

Various news outlets recently published a study claiming that using a period in texts and online messages could be seen as offensive or annoying by young people. For Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012—adding a full stop to your message does not just mean the end of a sentence. They will often read the period as a falling intonation, which could be interpreted as the sender being antagonistic or passive-aggressive.

Other punctuation marks and emojis can also lead to miscommunication, and at times, amusing misalignments. The most comical example I could think of is the tendency of some baby boomers to send text messages in all caps, which younger generations interpret as shouting. Another is how older generations use one exclamation mark to convey a very high level of positive or negative emotion, adhering to traditional grammar guides. In contrast, younger generations feel compelled to use three or more exclamation points (!!!) to adequately express their enthusiasm.

I read the news article while I was with a fellow millennial social entrepreneur who validated the findings with his own experience. One of his younger employees recently told him that the thumbs-up sign he routinely uses to swiftly approve online agreements felt impersonal and callous. For his Zoomer team members, choosing the default thumbs-up emoji out of all the available reaction symbols conveyed a lack of effort or interest on the part of their supervisor. Apparently, the same goes for using the generic smiley face.

Some older people’s knee-jerk reaction to the study’s findings is to interpret them as further evidence that Generation Z is the “snowflake generation”: overly emotional and easily offended. But as many linguists have clarified, language—including definitions of words, use of punctuation, and meanings attributed to visual symbols—is constantly evolving in response to the changing context of human communication. Since many Zoomers grew up communicating digitally and through text, it is both normal and expected that they have developed unique methods for incorporating and interpreting tone and intention.


With the increasing presence of Generation Zs in the workplace, their messaging habits pose a challenge for multigenerational workplaces, potentially causing confusion that can hinder effective communication. This means every employee needs to be mindful of how their messages might be interpreted or how they are interpreting other people’s responses, especially in more casual online conversations. Older supervisors, in particular, must be proactive and comfortable with asking clarifying questions to ensure mutual understanding.

As someone who works in the education space, I genuinely thought that proper punctuation and formal language were expected from everyone at all times and that I would be spared from this phenomenon. I was proven wrong when I read a comment made by an outgoing project manager on her turnover file: “Don’t worry about her formal tone and lack of emojis on WhatsApp. She’s just busy.” When I inquired further, she explained, “I just didn’t want the new person to think that you’re not a warm person.”

Zoomers reacting to the study’s findings insist that their preference for loose grammar in texts and social media posts is only reserved for casual communication. Other research has confirmed, however, that constantly doing so can compromise an individual’s mastery of proper sentence structure and overall grammatical skills. In a study on “Techspeak,” communications professor S. Shyam Sundar of Pennsylvania State University found that many teens struggle to “code switch” between standard grammar and text abbreviations, and obtain lower scores on grammar tests.

Addressing this issue requires educators to take the lead. They might need to implement targeted interventions to reinforce essential skills. These could include grammar drills, personalized feedback on writing assignments, and lessons highlighting the differences between casual text-speak and formal writing. By doing so, educators can help students better understand when each style is appropriate, and how to properly interpret the meaning of a dot or a mark in that particular context.


The challenge is not just about correcting mistakes but also about fostering an appreciation for the richness and power of language in its various forms. By exposing students to a diverse range of reading materials, from classic literature to contemporary texts, teachers will help young people build a more robust linguistic foundation. Ultimately, the goal is to equip students with the ability to switch seamlessly between the formal language required in academic and professional settings and the informal style used in digital communication, preparing them to be versatile and effective communicators in any environment.

Internet linguistics is reshaping the way we perceive and use punctuation. We can either just stubbornly cling to traditional correctness or choose to be more open to the new rules of language in this evolving landscape. The key to bridging the generational communication gap and fostering a more cohesive workplace lies not only in expecting my younger team members to learn from me but also in my willingness to learn from them.


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TAGS: opinion, Undercurrent

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