Hi folks, this is Paul. I’m writing the character of Rebecca, the sulky teenage daughter, which is great fun and something of a challenge. Part of the challenge is that, being a typical modern 15-year-old, Rebecca communicates solely through text messages, tweets and Facebook posts. Plus the occasional email when she really wants to go deep. That means very few words are available to get across her personality and relevant details of her life.
Brief texts are a typical way for many young people to communicate, but the shortness of the message naturally leads to a lot of overanalyzing of meaning. You want to know what this person is really saying, and, most importantly, whether or not they like you. And you only have max 160 characters to work it out!
In his book 11 Points Guide to Hooking Up, American comedy writer Sam Greenspan gives some pertinent tips for interpreting the underlying message based on the punctuation used. Here are a few of the highlights. Pledge to buy the book and you can discover what they say about Rebecca!
Meaning: You don’t want to keep going back and forth all night.
In texting, you don’t have to end a sentence with any punctuation. It’s totally acceptable to just let it dangle. So using a period gives a certain air of finality to a statement. Compare:
I’m heading out to the party now.
I’m heading out to the party now
In the first one, the meaning is clear: we’ve had our back-and-forth over text, but I have plans, and they do not include continuing this conversation — period. In the second one, without the period, it feels much more open-ended — I’m heading out to the party now but who knows what I’m doing later, and you just might be part of it. Periods end things. Leaving one out keeps things open.
Meaning: Something between playful and desperate, depending on usage.
The exclamation point is the most valuable punctuation mark you have in your arsenal, but it’s also the most dangerous. When used properly, a single exclamation point can set a light tone, convey excitement, and even demonstrate interest. Compare:
Sounds good. Not sure if we’re going but I might see you at the party. If you leave, let me know
Sounds good. Not sure if we’re going but I might see you at the party. If you leave, let me know!
The person in the second example seems far, far more interested in getting together … and did it without changing a word.
It’s always better to play it cool than to play it like a 12-year-old writing YouTube comments.
But be careful. Exclamation points are the most abused piece of punctuation in our world today. When you start overusing exclamation points, you look like an amateur:
Sounds good! Not sure if we’re going but I might see you at the party! If you leave, let me know!
The first exclamation point is OK … the second is way too overeager … and the third is just flat-out desperate. And when in doubt, get rid of the exclamation point. It’s always better to play it cool than to play it like a 12-year-old writing YouTube comments.
Meaning: You’re trying too hard.
No one uses semicolons in day-to-day casual writing; it’s a literary piece of punctuation, not a colloquial one. So using a semicolon in a text shows you’ve thought out, revised, and overedited your message. That means you’re trying too hard, and there’s nothing worse than trying too hard. A semicolon in a text message is the equivalent of putting on makeup to go to the gym.
Meaning: You pay attention to the little things.
In text land, apostrophes have become endangered species. Youd is just as acceptable at you’d. Id is just as acceptable as I’d. Youre is just as acceptable as you’re. (Or, on the Internet, your.)
So when you actually take the time to use an apostrophe, it means something. I like to think it sends a subconscious message that you take the extra time to do things right. And that effort hints that you’d be a real hard-working giver in a relationship — or at least into one extremely memorable sexual escapade.
Meaning: You’re afraid the person isn’t as cool as you.
The main reason people use asterisks in a text is to censor a word, for example: “I like deep-fried sandwiches so my friends call me the C*** of Monte Cristo. Little do they know I’m plotting my elaborate revenge on them.”
And there’s really only one reason to censor a swear word: if you’re afraid the person’s not as cool as you. Because if they were, they’d run around dropping f-bombs and c-bombs and f’d-in-the-a-with-your-own-d-bombs without the censorship.
So asterisks imply that you don’t think that person likes it raw, like you (and ODB). Save the asterisks for funny usage, something like this: “I bet you $65,000* that I am a better bowler than you.
*prize may be substituted for firm handshake or one turn at claw game.”
Meaning: You want to bring the conversation to life.
Texting is a faceless, emotionless means of communication. So no matter how middle school-ish they are, emoticons can be the best way to make your texts feel 3-D (and not crappy, retrofitted 3-D like they’re using in movies to add to the ticket prices. Good 3-D).
For women, use them carefully. Too many and you look immature. I had a friend who was texting with a girl and every single message she sent contained the winky face. It’s like she was outsourcing her texting to a seventh grader. (Or that her emoticon had some kind of palsy.)
And if you’re male … steer very clear. Any ratio higher than one emoticon per one hundred texts is pure poison.
Meaning: You want the person to read between the lines.
Using ellipses in a text is your way of saying what you either can’t say yet (because it’d fall under the “too soon” umbrella), or what you are afraid to say (because you’re afraid you’ll seem disagreeable or high maintenance). Check out this example:
Yeah, Kickboxer 4 could work … I’ve also heard good things about that Katherine Heigl movie Falling in Love Is Neat … either way, meet you there at 8?
It’s clear what that text really means: “I’d rather die than see a movie about the underground world of kickboxing, and you’re an idiot for suggesting that we go see it. I’d rather see a romantic comedy. And now, because this has gotten a little awkward, I think we should meet at the theater so I have an escape plan.”
You can also use ellipses in a positive way, to get the person’s imagination going:
Had maybe a few too many drinks last night … legs are sore from dancing … in the bathtub right now …
That text takes three statements and just loads them with sexual undertones thanks to the ellipses. (Unless a guy sent that text. Then it’s just kind of odd.)
Meaning: It depends on how many question marks you use.
Question marks have a tendency to stack onto each other. And with each stack the meaning changes.
What time do you want to meet up? Simple, unassuming, and friendly. Gets the point across, elicits a response, but also drives toward a solution.
What time do you want to meet up?? Looks like a typo.
What time do you want to meet up??? Feels impatient, childish. It’s an aggressive question: It demands a response, and suggests that the response had better be to your liking.
What time do you want to meet up???? Cycles back to playful. Now it’s a joke. If you (God forbid) talked to the person on the phone, you might sing-say that entire question.
What time do you want to meet up????? Too many. Now it’s just confusing. Why were five question marks necessary? This seems like the kind of person who would write “kewl.”
So … use one question mark to just move the conversation along, and four to move it along flirtatiously. Anything else and you’re doing it wrong.
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