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GUEST COLUMN: The absolutes of grammar, and the not so much

Monica Sheppard

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

For years, my family has referred to me as the grammar Nazi. I got it from my dad, the OG (“original gangster” for those of you polishing your urban linguistics) of grammar in the family. If we came into the room in a rush and said, “Where are my shoes at?” He would calmly say, “Behind the at,” and wait for us to say it correctly before answering.

As time has passed, I have softened my habit of correcting grammar to almost never. Not just because no one likes a know-it-all (I mean, seriously), but also because I have noticed a shift in the way I speak and type, and I don’t want to preach if I am not practicing.

Recently, on Facebook, I watched as two people discussed how jarring bad grammar was for them. How it was like hitting a wall to come to a grammatical error in someone’s writing. They went back and forth with their critique and, all the while, one of them had spelled a word incorrectly; a classic your/you’re type scenario. It was a bit like watching someone discuss what an unflattering color orange is and how no one should ever wear it, while wearing an orange shirt.

I have caught myself making such mistakes in the fast-typing, short-messaging and auto-correcting platform most of us are functioning in these days. So, who am I to talk? People accustomed to writing in a professional setting refer to AP style as the benchmark for proper communication. I joke that it stands for “absolutely perfect” style, but it is actually short for Associated Press, and is considered the ultimate guide for correct communication. But, those lines are blurring in current culture, for better or worse.

Which brings me to the end-all of punctuation, the period. I have noticed, lately, that I have developed a habit of leaving the period off the end of the last sentence of a text message. I have been feeling guilty about it because I see it as an act of laziness. I have to switch screens to add the period. Why waste time on that for a text message? But, what am I saying to the reader? Does it feel like I don’t care enough about them to get it right?

Well, I can let my guilty feelings go! Last week, I happened upon an article by Lauren Collister in Business Insider magazine titled, “There's a linguistic reason why using a period in a text message makes you sound like a jerk.” Who knew?

It turns out that researchers have been studying this phenomenon for a while and have found that people, over the last ten years or so, have come to perceive a period at the end of a text to be very formal and insincere; downright angry, even.

I find this fascinating. How can a lowly dot say so much, and how have I developed the habit without even realizing there were external trends involved? Collister references a term used by linguist John J. Gumperz, “situational code-switching,” as a possible explanation. It refers to the way that we change our communication style according to the circumstances and the style of the person we are communicating with. I call it speaking with a “sympathetic ear” when I catch myself using a deeper Southern accent than usual while conversing with someone who speaks that way more naturally.

Grammar snobs such as myself, commonly referred to as old people, have been known to claim the “dumbing down” of American culture when observing the relaxation of grammatical rules over the last decade. But, studies have begun to show that these habits are actually a sign of advanced intelligence and highly developed social competence. Could it be that we are developing a bilingual talent when we embrace popular communication styles? Of course, this is only true if we can switch between them as the situation merits.

So, I will continue to use periods in a platform such as this, but don’t feel slighted when I leave them off in text messages. It is merely a sign of how advanced I am in my ability to communicate. But, if you ever catch me saying, “Jimmy and I’s” anything, please just take me out back and shoot me.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.