"Textisms" - irregular spellings and punctuations in text messages - helps replace expressive cues found in spoken conversations to convey meaning and intent, a study has found.
Textisms are not a sign that written language is going down the drain, researchers said.
"In contrast with face-to-face conversation, texters can't rely on extra-linguistic cues such as tone of voice and pauses, or non-linguistic cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures," said Celia Klin, professor at Binghamton University in the US.
"In a spoken conversation, the cues aren't simply add-ons to our words; they convey critical information. A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words," Klin.
"It's been suggested that one way that texters add meaning to their words is by using 'textisms' - things like emoticons, irregular spellings (soooo) and irregular use of punctuation (!!!)," she said.
A 2016 study led by Klin found that text messages that end with a period are seen as less sincere than text messages that do not end with a period.
Klin pursued this subject further, conducting experiments to see if people reading texts understand textisms, asking how people's understanding of a single-word text (eg yeah, nope, maybe) as a response to an invitation is influenced by the inclusion, or absence, of a period.
"In formal writing, such as what you'd find in a novel or an essay, the period is almost always used grammatically to indicate that a sentence is complete. With texts, we found that the period can also be used rhetorically to add meaning," said Klin.
"Specifically, when one texter asked a question (eg I got a new dog. Wanna come over?), and it was answered with a single word (eg yeah), readers understood the response somewhat differently depending if it ended with a period (yeah.) or did not end with a period.
"This was true if the response was positive (yeah, yup), negative (nope, nah) or more ambiguous (maybe, alright).
"We concluded that although periods no doubt can serve a grammatical function in texts just as they can with more formal writing - for example, when a period is at the end of a sentence - periods can also serve as textisms, changing the meaning of the text," Klin said.
The research is motivated by an interest in taking advantage of a unique moment in time when scientists can observe language evolving in real time, she said.
"What we are seeing with electronic communication is that, as with any unmet language need, new language constructions are emerging to fill the gap between what people want to express and what they are able to express with the tools they have available to them," said Klin.
With trillions of text messages sent each year, we can expect the evolution of textisms, and of the language of texting more generally, to continue at a rapid rate, researchers said.
Texters are likely to continue to rely on current textisms, as well to as create new textisms, to take the place of the extra-linguistic and nonverbal cues available in spoken conversations.
The rate of change for "talk-writing" is likely to continue to outpace the changes in other forms of English.