Texting Subtext

Recent politics makes us, perhaps, overly aware of just how differently from us people can see the world. Recent politics also makes us very aware of how fraught it can be interacting with people who see the world differently. (Although it isn’t the differences that divide us so much as our tribalism.)

Setting politics aside for a moment, I recently stumbled over a difference that I found both bemusing and enlightening. It explains something that’s puzzled me (and caused a degree of head-shaking) for quite a while. What’s cool is how it switches my worldview, because now I understand it’s not a mistake or laziness, but a valid choice.

I’m talking about periods and lower case in text messages!

As with most people my age (six decades plus), I learned to write in what we might need now to call the “classical” way. It used to be mostly just ‘the way people write,’ but our modern era has a variety of ways for people to write.

So by “classical” I mostly mean respecting punctuation, capitalization, and maybe basic spelling. I’m not including vocabulary or structure or even grammar — just writing ‘according to the rules’ of English (or whatever language you write in).

[BTW: Did you know the “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t true? In Latin, yes; in English, no. The idea comes from a foolish 17th century attempt to make English like Latin.]

These writing rules — when followed — help ensure clarity and precision. The famous punctuation example, “Eats[,] shoots and leaves,” illustrates how leaving out a single comma changes the meaning. (It also shows how helpful the Oxford comma is!)

Those rules also ensure something a bit more abstract: transparency.

The idea is to remove any distraction in the style of the writing so that the content of the writing takes front and center. I had an English teacher who emphasized this especially with regard to handwriting. How something is written shouldn’t interfere with what is written.

Which isn’t to say that writing style can’t be a choice. Art is what the artist says it is. (And also what the consumer of that art says! That tends to keep art from getting too weird — it won’t sell.)

The point of all this is that I have strong feelings about the importance of “old school” writing. I place a high value in transparency in the text. (In part, perhaps, because I place a high value on content and not much on style.)

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At the same time, I’ve always understood that email was an informal medium, and that the usual rules don’t fully apply. I’ve always chosen to write “correctly” (which is how I tend to see it) mainly because, again, I value transparency.

Texting and messaging (which, yes, are different) are even more informal and are, therefore, even more rule-free. And, still, I’ve always chosen to follow the basic rules — sentences starting with a capital letter and ending with a period being the big ones.

I’ve never thought everyone should do the same (honest!), but I will admit I have a little more respect for people who take the time and make the effort. (At least I respect their writing ability, but content always rules the day.)

As a libertarian, I try to live by the creed of “do your thing; just don’t mess with mine,” and that certainly applies to something as trivial as email, texts, or messages.

[Technically, “texts” are SMS messages, which are limited in size and date back to early cell phone days. The modern era brings us “messages,” which are similar to “chats” and allow longer messages and attachments. I’m just gonna say “messages” from here on.]

I just figured I’d write my way, and other people can write their way, and that’s all fine. What I never realized is that others read subtext into how I write, just as I read subtext into how others write.

The funny part is I think the subtext is probably wrong in both cases!

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There was an article about how people don’t use periods in messages.

At first, I thought they meant just at the end of a one-line text:

see you tonight

Which I see a lot, but no biggie.

But as I read, I realized they meant after sentences in the message! And that, too, is something I’ve noticed and, yes, been mildly annoyed by:

see you tonight lets have pizza

Typically one can understand the message, although sometimes it takes a moment. No comment on the missing apostrophe. (Cue the choir for the old refrain of spelling and grammar abusers everywhere: “You understood what I meant, didn’t you?”)

The other part of this is that they also don’t capitalize the first word in a sentence. Why would you if you’re not using periods? That would end up being strange:

See you tonight Lets have pizza

It might save a moment of puzzling, and one might argue that capitalization and periods as sentence markers is redundant. One then might also go the other way and just use the periods:

see you tonight. lets have pizza.

Which is a lot less strange, and if the point was removing unnecessary typing, then that last period can go, too!

But it turns out efficiency really isn’t the point.

Nor is another reasonable excuse: the sheer misery of typing on touchscreen “keyboards” or — worse — cellphone keypads.

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It turns out it’s a choice!

And what’s more, the choice to use “proper” sentences is seen as being a bit pompous, full of yourself, or at least being too formal!

Kind of like wearing a suit to the beach. It’s the guy wearing the suit that’s the oddball, not the ones in bathing suits.

So the joke (once again) is on me!

Ah, well, whadda gonna do? Everyone is doing their thing, so I’m gonna go on doing mine. At least I’ll understand a bit more what’s going on.

And that what I’ve seen as sloppy writing is actually a way of being friendly.

Although…

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I’m sorry, being who I am (an asshole with impossibly high standards), I can’t help but wonder about how apparent convenience conveniently coincides with a style choice.

Which is odd considering how many style choices are the exact opposite of convenient or lazy. (Spike heels and other high fashion — lookin’ at you!)

Yeah, it is harder to write proper sentences (but, oh, so worth it), and harder still to spell correctly. OTOH (would you prefer “otoh”?), it’s not that much harder, and devices make it easier with auto correct and shortcuts.

On Apple iMessage, for example, two taps of the space bar auto inserts a period to end the sentence and puts you in CAPS mode for the first letter. One would have to choose to not use the feature to maintain the “casual” look!

Yet I think the bottom line is that it really isn’t convenience, but a true style choice. One I find weird, but that’s true of most style choices, actually.

Most importantly, it’s a lesson for me that being “correct” might send a different subtext than I intend! It’s a lesson that may apply elsewhere in my life.

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BTW, it’s not that I’m opposed to style, but I do value content much more.

I can be downright disdainful of style when content is completely lacking. I’m not a fan of style for style sake. It’s a perfectly valid artistic choice, but it’s one I tend to find shallow and empty in the execution.

That same article touched on people with odd writing styles that they deliberately chose to stand out. That’s the sort of thing I have a hard time drumming up much respect for it. Stand out by your quality, not your style.

Consider Prince. If not the King of Style, certainly one of its Leaders.

But also a musical genius (and gone too soon).

I appreciate the hell out of his style, but I love his musical genius!

So that’s kinda my standard for people who are all about style.

And most of you aren’t Prince.

Stay stylish, my friends, but also stay content-full!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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