Text messaging just might be the Wild West of communication. As we race to keep up with our messages and text out speedy replies, all the rules of English spelling, grammar, and punctuation seem to go out the window.
Want to spell you with just the letter U? Or skip words altogether? (“Sup?”) Go for it! Depending on your audience, that can be totally fine for a text message.
But, even though it seems like there aren’t any rules when it comes to writing a text message, there are some unspoken general guidelines—especially when it comes to punctuation. Do you include a period at the end of a sentence? Can you use a smiley face emoji as a period instead? The answers to these questions—and many more—will vary. If you’re talking to your coworker, maybe leave out the snarky periods. But your friends will likely appreciate some creative emoji game to end a witty comment ?
Buckle up, because we’re going to go over some general guidelines for using punctuation in text messages. Then, we’re going to look at some specific contexts that might change how you use punctuation. And last, but not least, we will look at how emoji work with—or as—punctuation in text messages. That’s right, your favorite call me hand emoji can do more than just “hang loose” ?
What’s punctuation even for?
Before we talk about punctuation in text messages, it’s worth taking a second to think about the purpose of punctuation. After all, why do we need it?
Punctuation marks—which include symbols like the period or full stop (.), question marks (?), and apostrophes (‘)—serve three basic functions:
Example: “Yes, I did call her,” Maggie said.
The commas (,) and quotation marks (“) make it clear that Maggie is speaking.
Example: She did what?!
The paired question mark (?) and exclamation mark (!) show that the emphasis of the sentence is on the final word (what) and that the speaker is at once surprised and asking a question. Fun fact: that mark is called an interrobang.
Example: I am so excited for the show tonight!!!!!!
All those exclamation marks (!) are a dead giveaway that the writer is very, very excited.
When you’re texting, punctuation marks serve the same three basic functions as they do everywhere else you write. However, unlike an essay or a short story, a text message doesn’t necessarily need punctuation.
So how do you decide when punctuation is required for clarity, emphasis, or emotion? Well, that’s going to depend on your audience.
Texting with friends
When you’re texting with friends, punctuation isn’t strictly necessary. You can leave off question marks, periods, and apostrophes willy-nilly. However, you will likely want to include the punctuation when clarity is absolutely necessary. For instance, the difference between these two messages is just the punctuation:
- what do you want me to cook
- what? do you want me to cook?
In the first version of the message, it seems as if the writer is asking, “What do you want me to cook?”
With the added question marks in the second example, it becomes clear that the writer is asking for clarity about the meal: “What? Do you want me to cook?”
If you’re trying to avoid being misunderstood, don’t hesitate to throw in a couple punctuation marks here and there.
However, adding punctuation to the end of a text message with a friend can come off as a little dorky, as a general rule. Since messages are generally fragmented text (because that’s the nature of the beast), using punctuation at the end of a message—or worse, signing it—seems redundant and overly formal.
- Too formal: Hi, Lilli! How are you? I can’t wait to see you today! I’ll pick you up at four. -MS
- Casual: Hi Lilli how are you? can’t wait to see you today – pick you up at 4.
Using periods with friends (or SOs) can also symbolize anger or snark.
That second “Hey.” may mean a serious conversation is coming instead of just a casual check-in between friends.
Periods can also be used in this informal setting for emphasis. A period that goes in between every word really drives home what you’re trying to say.
- You. Must. Be. Joking.
It symbolizes the pauses someone might take if they’re so worked up that they’re spitting out one word at a time. Drama.
Texting with family
Deciding what punctuation to use when texting with your family will really come down to how tech-savvy your relatives are. With older relatives, or those who may not be used to text messaging generally, it is good to heap on the punctuation points for clarity, emphasis, and emotion. In these cases, you’d use punctuation as you normally would when writing.
When texting with relatives who are a little more comfortable with technology, you can be a little more informal. With your family, as with your friends, using lots of emoji (more on that in a second) is totally fine. And using fewer punctuation marks is generally acceptable.
Here’s a quick rule: when texting with your family, you should use exclamation points and question marks, but periods are optional.
Why do we recommend still using question marks and exclamation points when texting your family? Because it provides important context—context that you may not need when you’re texting with your friends.
Whether you realize it or not, you and your friends likely have an internal shorthand. Your inside jokes, your stories, your slang, all of these come together to help your friends understand you, even without punctuation. Your family members don’t have all of this extra information to help them understand what you’re trying to say, which is why punctuation is important for clarity.
Check out these examples of how too little punctuation can lead to a misunderstanding with relatives:
- Too little punctuation: college is going well well except for the homework
- Just right: College is going well. Well, except for the homework.
- Too little punctuation: I don’t care whatever you want
- Just right: I don’t care. Whatever you want.
Don’t leave Grandma wondering if you respect her opinions. Use periods.
Texting with co-workers
Even though texting is generally considered an informal—and therefore unprofessional—mode of communication, more and more workplaces rely on text messaging. This can be difficult when you’re expected to be professional.
When faced with this kind of dilemma, always err on the side of being more professional—until you figure out the rules of your workplace. These rules apply to traditional text messaging. But they can also be extended to all forms of work-related texting like Gchat, Slack, and even LinkedIn messages. While these are newer forms of messaging, they still follow the same general rules as texting even though they are primarily (or exclusively) used in the workplace.
In this context, being professional means using all of the punctuation at your disposal.
- Not professional: did u see the report 2day
- Professional: Did you see the report today?
That said, be judicious when it comes to exclamation points. In other words, when texting your co-workers (and particularly when texting your higher-ups), try to avoid too many exclamation points. They can come off as juvenile.
A good rule to keep in mind when text messaging or writing online generally is that it can be very difficult to tell the tone of the message. Are they joking? Being sarcastic? It can be hard to tell, which can lead to misinterpretation and could possibly offend someone.
The best way to avoid offense when you’re texting in the workplace? Avoid sarcasm and irony, and stick to straightforward, direct language.
Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land at your workplace, you may notice that messages are more informal and don’t always require punctuation. But we recommend keeping it professional before you start leaving off the punctuation.
Using emoji as punctuation
OK, we know emoji aren’t technically punctuation. Unless it’s the question mark emoji ?.
Jokes aside, while emoji aren’t traditional punctuation, they can also be used to provide clarity, emphasis, and emotion.
With friends and in other informal contexts, using lots of emoji is acceptable (although some people might find it annoying). Face emoji like smiling face with heart-shaped eyes ?, upside-down face ?, and rolling on the floor laughing emoji ? at the end of a text message can show love, irony, and laughter, respectively. Practically any emotion can be expressed using a face emoji.
Other emoji, like food or animal emoji, can add clarity. For example, if you’re talking about your dog, Emma, you might write something like:
- take emma out? ?
Like other forms of punctuation, these emoji can be included at the end of the message. However, they can also be included in the middle or beginning of the message. That said, it’s generally clearer when these clarifying emoji are tacked on to the end.
If you are using an emoji, the other punctuation need to accommodate it. An emoji can be used as punctuation on its own. However, if you want to combine it with other punctuation, you should put the emoji after the punctuation at the end of the sentence. For example:
- Weird emoji placement: I’m not sure ?????
- Totally fine emoji placement: I’m not sure? ????
In more formal, professional contexts, fewer emoji are appropriate. Occasionally, basic face emoji like the slightly smiling face ? and the slightly frowning face ? can be used. And, regardless of context, the thumbs up emoji ? can function as punctuation to show your approval. But, generally speaking, you don’t want to use emoji when texting in a workplace. There are too many ways they can possibly be misinterpreted.
That said, Slack has specifically tried to incorporate emoji into its workplace messaging service. The app offers a more limited selection of emoji than you might find in your typical text messaging app. In theory, these emoji can help clarify the tone of a message when used in a professional context. However, it’s not clear how many people in the workplace have taken to using these emoji beyond a typical smiling face, frowning face, and thumbs up emoji ?. Even within this specific context, it can seem unprofessional to use too many emoji.
Other apps, like Facebook Messenger, allow you to create your own custom emoji that look like you. While they can add humor to casual text messages, they aren’t great for punctuation (they’re really big). And we wouldn’t recommend using them in the workplace because of how informal they are.
From exclamation points to ?, punctuation is there to clarify, emphasize, and express emotion in your text messages. Whether you use it or not, it’s a tool you always have at your disposal.