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Woster: The best form of communication is clear and concise. Except when you're texting

More humbling is discovering my texting style might be interpreted as aggressive. That’s because I use punctuation marks and other tools of proper writing.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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After a chat with a granddaughter the other day, I realized I might be a terribly offensive person when it comes to writing text messages.

Who knew, right? I mean, during my school years in Chamberlain, one wonderful teacher after another helped me learn sentence structure and use of words and proper punctuation and all the other things that once were required in written communications. And in my professional life as a newspaper reporter, the ability to produce clear, concise stories was an essential piece of the job. I’d go so far as to say that clear writing was the job, no matter the story.

Things have changed. Nobody — well, almost nobody — sits down and writes a letter, it seems. Handwritten letters are a treat to receive, but I imagine I’m squarely in the demographic group that still sends them once in a while. Everything is done by text message or some other form of instant, online messaging.

I can text, although I’ll never learn to use a touch-screen keyboard with more than my right index finger. I used to crank away quite proficiently with both thumbs on a Blackberry keyboard, but those are as gone as typewriters. So, a guy who could cut tape on a teletype machine at better than 90 words a minute is reduced to pecking with one finger, deleting a lot and creating typographical errors that too often are in the sent message. It’s humbling.

More humbling is discovering my texting style might be interpreted as aggressive. That’s because I use the punctuation marks and other tools of proper writing that I learned under those great teachers.

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I’ve read random articles about internet writing and how it can be interpreted. I didn’t pay much attention. Nobody can fault a guy for using formal style and punctuation, I figured.

But when the granddaughter came for a visit, she analyzed a one-word online response to something posted on one social-media platform or another. The word was in capital letters, but it had no punctuation. If I’d written it, I’d have capitalized the first letter and ended the word with a period. Even though it was just a word and not a sentence, I’d been taught that things like that need a clearly marked end point.

That approach could have been harsh, abrupt, even aggressive, my granddaughter said. Periods, she said, can be interpreted that way in today’s online communications. The all-caps writing might be considered shouting, she said, but the lack of an ending punctuation mark softened the tone of the message. Well, I never.

After she left, I did some research, or what passes for research these days. I Googled a question and read a few random responses. One of the sources said, “How you use punctuation can change the whole meaning of a text. A quick “thank you!’’ message can go from friendly to passive-aggressive or anxiety-inducing, simply by changing the exclamation point to a period.’’

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A few more folks scattered here and there would be nice, though, enough to support a café or two, a general store, a corner grocery and so on.

Me, I’d have thought the exclamation point — one of my first really good editors called them “scare marks’’ — made the note more aggressive. Shows what an old reporter knows, I guess, because I read further that “exclamation points sound more polite. Ending a text message with a period might be the grammatically correct way to do it, but it can come across as rude.’’ In other words, being correct sometimes is rude. Goodness.

“If you say things with that tone, that sounds a little bit sarcastic, it sounds a little bit final,’’ according to an article quoting linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who wrote “Because Internet.’’ So, the “tone’’ of a period at the end of an online sentence, she said, could be interpreted as “maybe this person’s mad at me, maybe this person isn’t sincere.’’

Well, that leaves me not only being a bit passive-aggressive and rude, but also angry and insincere. And all I wanted to do was write a proper sentence the way my teachers showed me.

I send few text messages these days, so my chances of being offensive aren’t great. And if I end this column with a period, please know I’m not angry.

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Opinion by Terry Woster
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