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Reports of the End of the Full Stop Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

2466376874_6633af4a84_bLate last week the NY Times foretold the death of the lowly period, but now it appears that the paper was going for hype over substance.

David Crystal, the academic cited in the NYTimes article as the source of reports of the period’s demise, refuted the NYTimes' story on Saturday. Writing on his personal blog, Crystal explained that he had only been discussing how the period was being used in specific circumstances, and was not trying to imply its use was on the decline.

As John Humphreys once said, in the Spectator, the job of a journalist is to simplify and exaggerate. And that’s what happened. My point got reported on the front page of the Telegraph – front page, no less – and the online site had the headline 'Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging'. Note the generalization. Whereas I was saying that the full-stop was changing in instant messaging (and the like), the paper reports it as changing everywhere because of instant messaging.

Unsurprisingly, as papers and radio programmes steal from each other all the time, Chinese-whisper-like, the drama increased. And when it got to the New York Times – the front page again – the headline read 'A Full Stop for Periods?' and the opening paragraph made a summary that then spread all over the globe: 'One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying'. And the writer went on:

The period … is gradually being felled in the barrange of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age

He used no full-stop at the end of his paragraph, or elsewhere in the article. It was a clever trope, but it went well beyond what I was saying, for there is no evidence at all that the full-stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles. The writer’s joke worked because he restricted his piece to single-sentence paragraphs. If he had used more than one sentence per paragraph he would soon have had to rely on the full-stop to make his writing easy to read.

So the full-stop is not dying, outside the circumstances I mentioned above. But in journalism, who cares about qualifying comments like that? Death always makes a good story, so why mess it up?

Basically, don’t believe everything you read in newspapers. Also, always check the original source.

image by schatz

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