No Punctuation Is Funnier

03/19/2015 08:47 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015

Technology, we are told every week or so, is rewiring our sentences. The open structure of text messaging makes periods seem angry, while its quickness turns formalities like an em dash into signs of marriageability (at least to this woman).

But to see man outpace machine, look no further than Twitter, where a style marked by little punctuation and no capitalization is almost a native language.

We have mostly ourselves to thank for this grammatical twist, says Gretchen McCulloch. A linguist who studies online behavior, McCulloch occasionally contributes to The Toast, the wry, writerly blog whose co-founder Mallory Ortberg is something of a pioneer of the low-punctuation, no-caps style.

McCulloch links the style's adoption by paradigmatic writers (see also: Choire Sicha, editor of the Toast's editorial cousin, The Awl) to the decline of an artifact -- the Caps Lock key.

Imagine the scenario: it's 1996, and you've logged into your AOL Instant Messenger account. Your main crush Brad types, HEY WHATS UP ARE YOU GOING TO THE MAX LATER -- and suddenly the fire inside you dims a little. Why is he typing like that? Is he dictating to his grandpa?

“If you think about reading an early Internet forum where somebody is typing in all caps, either they’re angry and shouting, or they’re inept and just have the Caps Lock key stuck on the computer," McCulloch says. "Like my grandparents used to."

Today, there's a higher general level of keyboard scholarship. (As well as fewer Caps Lock keys, thanks to Google and other companies eliminating the button considered a blight on the Internet.) And so we’re rid of certain hangups. Unburdened of the need to prove our online facility with perfectly formatted sentences, we’re able to experiment. This has led to a writing form McCulloch calls “the opposite of shouting” -- little punctuation, no capitalization, essentially a run-on sentence.

Contrast the innovation with the looseness of handwritten notes. "In a sense you have more freedom on a page,” McCulloch points out. “With a pen, you can write outside the margins, or draw boxes around important words. Online we’re constrained a bit. We make use of what’s available on the keyboard to try to be fully expressive.”

Platforms where editing is informal, e.g. Twitter and Tumblr, function as language laboratories, says Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist who specializes in speech unique to the digital age.

Schnoebelen points out that in these contexts, the mystery isn’t that people break rules, but that any follow them. For researchers, he says, “the question becomes, ‘What is it that’s making somebody on this relatively informal platform write in traditional ways?’”

The answer isn’t necessarily the obvious one of demographics. “There are young people who like to adhere to standards, and older people who don’t,” Schnoebelen says. He cites an offender well known in linguistic circles: Senator Chuck Grassley, whose creatively worded tweets made their way to Gawker’s microscope in 2012.

Grassley’s affinity for “all sorts of abbreviations and non-standard spellings” may be singular (Schnoebelen calls it "preposterous"), but it's not exactly anomalous.

Text shortcuts have become popular with baby boomers as texting has become mainstream. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear out a movement akin to the Facebook exodus, a rejection of what was once thought of as a youthful tic by kids whose parents have co-opted the behavior. “It does seem that young people spell out, whereas it’s their parents who are abbreviating as they’re coming to text,” Schnoebelen says.

Charting the rise of the no-caps, low-punctuation line is trickier. Empirically, the style seems popular within a certain circle of literary online writers. Schnoebelen points out that dispensing of punctuation, or separating sentences with commas, wends closer to oral speech patterns. Doing so aligns with the personality of the sites these writers represent, which don't claim authoritativeness in the same way as old media publications where formatting is standard, and content therefore (presumably) trustworthy. (Neither Sicha nor Ortberg returned a request for comment.)

This formatting in turn yields a specific narrative voice. McCulloch likens it to that of a certain breed of modern stand-up comic. Think Demetri Martin, or the late Mitch Hedberg: “very calm and relaxed,” says McCulloch, “maybe even non-emotional.”

Early twentieth century American writers manipulated text to much the same effect. Gertrude Stein was a noted hater of the exclamation and question marks, calling both symbols “unnecessary” and “ugly.” Her flattened sentences shaped the lines of writers who studied her, mostly Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings, the latter a famous manipulator of capitalization and punctuation.

Stein is also credited for influencing the Beat poets and through them the Internet-based genre, Alt-Lit. Were she around today, the out lesbian who worked her way into the American canon from its fringes would probably be a great tweeter. Take her famous compression of multiple thoughts into a single-line evisceration of fatherhood, sent in a letter to Thornton Wilder. Her economy of punctuation adds a certain 21st century shock value: “There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing.”

The parody Twitter account, @gertrudestein_, runs solely on actual quotes from the late modernist writer. In this one, the sentence's unpunctuated flow demands of the reader an attentiveness to each word.

She was also ahead of her time in her choice of which parts of grammar she didn’t like. Stein considered capital letters an inevitable anachronism, as doomed as the feeling of formality they create. “Just as with horses, capitals will have gone away,” she wrote in the essay, “Poetry & Grammar.” Her takedown of the question mark in the same essay is equally poetic, and wonderfully tautological: “If you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question.”

Cummings caromed off Stein, playing with the look of text to conjure a galaxy of emotions. But the 2.0 version has returned the aim to humor. “No punctuation is funnier” has become an Internet truism at this point, enshrined in online trope databases and embodied by a single word: “What.” (Versus that old stalwart, “what?”)

Where LOLcats were once the mascots of the web, captioned with forceful all-caps sentiments strewn with punctuation, we have entered the era of the Doge (another topic of analysis by McCulloch), a dog-based meme that typically layers images of wide-eyed Shiba Inus in low-punctuation, no-caps Internet speak. As with their human counterparts, the effect of the mellow formatting on what are often hyper thoughts creates the sense of an animal frozen with emotion, as if on pain killers. A sampling of classic doge cries for help: “why this happen”; “to scare”; “plz.”

when you tease a dog with a treat 😂

A photo posted by doge? doge. (@doges) on

At its purest, the style reflects the peculiar impulse to drain a line of emotion. This might actually indicate overwhelming emotion, as seen in Mitch Hedberg’s legendary nerves or in the quiet despair of a doge. The artistry of feigned nonchalance should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Wes Anderson movie. It’s a hallmark of the modern aesthetic memorably coined “smart dumb,” by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Writing at The Awl, Goldsmith outlined a manifesto for an approach defined by what it is not: neither smart smart (“a star student”) or dumb dumb (“an ill-prepared slacker”).

“Smart dumb rejects both,” he writes, “choosing instead to walk a tightrope between the two."

Goldsmith has his own list of smart dumb icons, including Gertrude Stein. It stands to reason that the perfectly-calibrated run-on created in her image should round out the group. No capitals, little punctuation, and no horses either: just words marching in a row.

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