The Functions of Punctuation

“Punctuation is and has always been a personal matter.”

I think all of my high school English teachers would have a heart attack if they heard that sentence. They would all probably also have had a problem with the discussions that we had in class about the modern uses of punctuation and the ways that emojis may be used as punctuation. Being taught the uses of punctuation in a fairly strict way, I never thought that something as basic as punctuation could be controversial but here we are. I also never thought that I would consider punctuation to be anything but basic but I am quickly discovering that that may not be the case after all. 

The modern uses of punctuation are so varied that it starts to make me wonder how I ever thought that punctuation was a simple topic. One of the biggest examples that was brought up during our class discussion was the difference between punctuation in a formal setting and punctuation in an informal setting. For example, we all agreed that full punctuation is used in emails, essays, basically anything where you want to look more professional. The divide started to happen when we discussed the uses of punctuation in social media and personal texts. Most of us agreed that the use of a period at the end of a text message makes the message seem more serious and might signify that the person is angry or stern, even when that may not be the case (although a few of us thought that punctuation in a text was normal and didn’t necessarily mean anything). In the same sense we discussed that the usage of an exclamation mark can change too (as in at times we might use more than one to really show how excited we are and that some of us have to limit how many we use at a given time). It is interesting to me that we have this clear distinction between times where punctuation is “appropriate” and when it might even come across as rude to use. The main use of “rude” punctuation, in my opinion at least, is the use of a single question mark to signify that someone wants you to answer their text. For some reason, the use of punctuation as a way to show that you want me to answer your text makes me not want to answer more. This bizarre association with a single punctuation mark is another way that we now have a strange relationship with the uses of punctuation.

Another point of conversation that was really interesting to me was the point that emojis may be considered to be a type of punctuation for us. For instance, an exclamation mark may be used to signify excitement or emphasis on a topic but now we have the introduction of emojis that can demonstrate the same thing (maybe even more precisely). Instead of using an exclamation mark to show that you are excited about something, there are a wide variety of emojis that can be used instead to show excitement and happiness. The same thing can be said for anger, disgust, and sadness. In informal settings we have moved away from using our words and punctuation to show what we are feeling and have instead moved to ending our sentences with emojis that more concisely show the same thing. Is this because of the urge to have more quickly understood meanings? Is it because we have gotten lazy in our writing and choose to rely on other things to express ourselves? 

If emojis are being used as a way to avoid punctuation, it is interesting to see the ways that we use emojis on their own, especially in my personal case. As I mentioned before, I don’t like when people just send me question marks to show that I still haven’t answered them but somehow I think it’s okay when it comes to emojis. For instance, my siblings and I all have a group chat on Facebook where we have a little poop emoji that we use to talk to each other. There are times where we haven’t spoken in months and then somebody will just send an emoji and another one of us will send one back. How is it that this form of communication is okay and even welcomed but sending a normal piece of punctuation is not okay?

Back to the original statement, though, how is punctuation a personal matter? In terms of writing, as M.B. Parkes said, some authors are very particular in their uses of punctuation while others only use it to the extent of making themselves understand their own writing. Even more modern, we all have different ways that we use punctuation in informal settings, some of us choosing to use emojis, some using regular punctuation, some choosing to use nothing at all. Punctuation can even lead to different feelings, depending on where we see it (especially in informal settings). It is so interesting to me that we are taught the uses of the period, the exclamation mark, commas, and yet we all have our own styles of using it and emotions that we feel when using them. At least in my education, I have always been taught to use my words to express things and that punctuation is just used to end sentences and connect clauses but somehow it is much more than that. 


Parkes, M.B. “Introduction.” In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of  Punctuation in the West, 5. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.