This is a message to my generation: Your punctuation habits are confusing people. If you don’t cut it out, you’re going to be misunderstood.

I learned this from a text message thread that we use to keep in touch with family members on both coasts, who range in age from 23 to 71.

“Question for the boomers in the group,” wrote my daughter Zora from California. “Why do some people in your age group (not you) use so many ellipses in their messages”

This was punctuated by the symbol that my online dictionary tells me is “confused face emoji.”

“oops, wuts an Elipse?” said my sister, Carol (always in a hurry).

“dot dot dot,” Zora replied.


“I see,” Carol typed. “ ‘Cause we need time to think.”

My wife, Gail, explained: “They’re like a pause … a breath …”

But not everyone sees it that way.

“I think they can be passive aggressive depending on the context,” Zora wrote diplomatically. “But now I understand that not everyone means them that way.”

Passive aggressive? Three dots?

“If someone said to me ‘that’s fine…’ I would think something is definitely wrong.”


Her cousin Alice jumped in from New York City.

“Zora, this is something I wonder about all the time!” Then, to the rest of us: “You should let the people in your generation know that a ‘…’ is hostile.”

Hostile, too? Three dots?

She backed it up with a couple of examples:

“it’s ok!” and “it’s ok …”

Zora agreed: “^big difference.”


Once I’d thought about it, I could see their point. I have been getting a lot of ellipses lately jammed between clauses in letters to the editor that are submitted to the paper, and we routinely take them out and replace them with more conventional punctuation, like commas or periods.

The only time you really need an ellipsis is when you want to tell the reader that some words have been removed from a quote.

I think what the letter writers might be trying to convey when they string three dots together is that there was some meaning that they could not fully express with words.

And that’s what bothers the millennials, who want you to give it to them straight up. An ellipsis tells them that something is being held back, casting doubt about the words that came before.

“It’s fine …” does not mean that “it” is fine.

No one in my position would question the importance of punctuation.


For instance, earlier in this piece I introduced “my wife, Gail.” The comma tells you that I have one wife and her name is Gail. If I had left it out, you could assume that I had several wives and you needed to know Gail’s name in order to know which wife I was talking about.

That little comma does a lot of important work.

But I also know that language changes over time, and just as some words don’t mean what they did when Shakespeare wrote them, the same may be true for punctuation.

When I was in college, I had a professor, a big Hemingway fan, who told us that we should limit ourselves to no more than one exclamation point a year. If we couldn’t express what was so exciting with strong verbs and short declarative sentences, we were not going to help a reader by putting a little line over a perfectly good period.

That might have been good advice in the early ’80s. But as my wife, Gail (the one and only!), has been informed, text messages without exclamation points seem cold and impersonal. Ending a text message with a period is a good way to hurt someone’s feelings. You are better off with no punctuation at all.

There’s no question that we are living in an era of exclamation point inflation and you can fight it if you want, but don’t complain if people think your texts are mean. New media have given us new ways to be misunderstood.


“I guess we have to have rules if we want to be able to communicate,” Gail pondered. “Otherwise, it would be like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Sodom and Gomorrah?”

“Yeah, in the Bible, where no one could understand each other.”

Oh, The Tower of Babel. Wrong story, but I knew what she meant, and that’s really the point.

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