The Grammarphobia Blog

Period piece

Q: When did we start emphasizing a point by saying or spelling out the punctuation at the end of it? Example: “I won’t pay that outrageous fine—period!” If one wants to emphasize a point, why not use a more emphatic punctuation mark? Example: “I won’t pay that outrageous fine—exclamation point!”

A: We’ve been saying or writing the word “period” to emphasize the end of a statement since at least the early 20th century, but we’ve had somewhat similar uses of the term since the 16th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the word “period” here as an adverb, says the usage is chiefly North American. Here’s how the dictionary defines it:

“Indicating that the preceding statement is final, absolute, or without qualification: and that is all there is to say about it, that is the sum of it, there is no more to be said.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from Husbands on Approval, a 1914 comedy by William M. Blatt: Have you finished what you were saying, Hamilton? Your heart has found its mate, period. That’s all you wanted us to know, isn’t it?”

A more recent example is this 2001 citation from the New York Times Magazine: Like it or not, you are going to learn something today. Period.

But as we’ve said, this usage has a history. It didn’t show up out of the blue.

The noun “period” has referred to the end of something since the mid-16th century. In Henry IV, Part 1, believed to have been  written in the late 16th century, Shakespeare uses the word in that way: “The period of thy Tyranny approacheth.”

And here’s a recent example from The Liar, a 1991 novel by Stephen Fry: “Peter forbore once more to put a period to the rottenest life in the rottenest den in the rottenest borough in the rottenest city in all the rotten world.”

And since the late 16th century, according to the OED, the noun “period” has meant the “single point used to mark the end of a sentence,” though this usage is now North American. In Britain, a period is called a “full stop.”

If you’d like to read more about what to call this thingy at the end of a sentence, we wrote a blog item earlier this year about periods and full stops.

Why, you ask, don’t people say or write out the phrase “exclamation point” at the end of an emphatic statement? We dunno!

But here’s an interesting use of the phrase from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1963 novel The Gift: “She was slowly mixing a white exclamation mark of sour cream into her borshch, but then, shrugging her shoulders, she pushed her plate away.”

By the way, we do often hear one other punctuation mark spoken: the quotation mark—or, rather, the clipped versions “quote” and “unquote.” In fact, we wrote a posting on the subject some time back.

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