Saying STOP when reading telegrams

A classic device from older movies is to read a telegram aloud like this: “Message received STOP Will send troops immediately STOP”, and so on. I was thinking about this for some odd reason, and wonder whether anyone actually have said “stop” like that back in the day? I would think that on the typed out copy that people received, it would be replaced by a period, just like normal punctuation, and would be read like normal sentences.

Is this just an old-fashioned movie device to make you know it was a telegram? Or am I missing something?

The way I had it explained to me was that there weren’t any punctuation marks in Morse Code, so people had to add the word “stop” to let you know the end of a thought.

A quick Google on “Morse Code,” however, shows codes for punctuation. I’m not sure if they were added later, so I guess I’m not being much help here.

(I hope this link works)

Anyway, it’s a helpful guide for writing telegrams from 1928.

It says, in addition to many other quaint things,

"If you do not intend to stipulate that marks of punctuation be transmitted, write your message without punctuation and read it carefully to make sure that it is not ambiguous. If it seems impossible to convey your meaning clearly without the use of punctuation, use may be made of the celebrated word “stop,” which is known the world over as the official telegraphic or cable word for “period.”

This word “stop” may have perplexed you the first time you encountered it in a message. Use of this word in telegraphic communications was greatly increased during the World War, when the Government employed it widely as a precaution against having messages garbled or misunderstood, as a result of the misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period.

Officials felt that the vital orders of the Government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word “stop,” to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out “comma,” “colon,” and “semi-colon.” The word “query” often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, “stop” has come into most widespread use, and vaudeville artists and columnists have employed it with humorous effect, certain that the public would understand the allusion in connection with telegrams. It is interesting to note, too, that although the word is obviously English it has come into general use In all languages that are used in telegraphing or cabling."

You may be interested in this 1928 document on “How to Write Telegrams Properly”, including a section on punctuation:

Punctuation marks were not transmitted unless the sender specifically requested it, and then they were charged as words. Rarely done, apparently.

Since the word “stop” was part of the senders original message, the receiving telegrapher would make a point of faithfully reproducing it.


While the explanation given so far is not incorrect it is not complete either. STOP was used in place of the period because of the kind of communication protocol in use at the time. In order to ensure that a message was received complete and intact, it would BEGIN with a period and END with a period. Putting a period anywhere within the body of the message could confuse the receiver into believeing he had received the full text of the message when in fact, he had not.

A person transmitting a telegram would structure the message by first sending their call letters, number of words, payment info, originating city, sender, time/date, and a couple of other things. Then the word TO would be sent followed by the recipients name and address. Then a period followed by the body of the message. Another period would signal the receiver that the transmission had concluded.

Er, is this supposed to somehow support the idea that there was incentive to use the word “STOP” instead of punctuation? Because I’m not quite following the logic of that.

Telegrams were charged by the word. The word STOP was often free because of intense competition between wire services whereas punctuation marks where charged as whole words.

I read hundreds of 1890 - 1910 telegrams for a project at work, and have not came across the word “stop” used this way in any of them. They are usually not that difficult to understand, even without punctuation. Most of them say things like “Will arrive on Monday evening” or “Mother improving.”

When I started to read them, I looked for the famous “stops.” Perhaps real life telegrams were not as dramatic as the movies would have us think.

Back in the “good old days” of the movies you refere to, telegrams weren’t typed out on a printer or equivalent device. They came in over a tickertape machine which put the typed out message on a narrow ribbon of paper. This ribbon was then cut off at the end of a sentence, usually, and pasted in sequence onto the message form.

As for reading it. I don’t know whether or not most people actually read the “stop.” When reading text do most people say “period” when they come to one?

Ok, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but if true, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Wire service competition pushed the word “STOP” to be free because it was commonly used as punctuation, but at the same time, real punctuation is charged as a whole word? That doesn’t make any sense.

Come use Galt’s Super Telegram Service where we charge double if you use the word “rutabaga”, but using the word “cranberry” to mean “rutabaga” is FREE!

Is the problem the era of your study? In the OED the first quotes for STOP in a telegram are a half century later.

Note that one of the senses for the word “stop” means period. So saying stop isn’t too remarkable. Perhaps sometimes people who read the telegram aloud added “stop” for the convenience of people listening.

I always felt that it was because Western Union made you pay for every sentence, every word, EVERY LETTER.

Reading the telegrams aloud certainly had an abrupt, halting cadence.

Since ending a sentence required a period…and WU would get every penny out of you by writing out the word “period”…you would save money by substituting “stop”.

You are right, partly_warmer. It has got to be the differences in the years they were created and sent. The telegrams are not the tickertape type like David Simmons described. I can see where that would get confusing and cause a need for punctuation or a replacement for punctuation. These are the typed or written kind and actually have fairly good spacing. I’ve also seen the tickertape strips glued to a regular telegram, though not in this current project.

That’s a very cool link, delphica. Thank you!

Ambiguity can crop up in the worst places in delivered messages, and nobody. One great example is:


“GG” and “RR” were the signals which delineated the beginning and end of the actual message. The rest was padding to make the message more difficult to understand. Unfortunately, it worked, and Halsey steered away from what would have been one of those classic ship-to-ship gun battles that all admirals (armchair and otherwise) dream of, even today.

According to legend, either Nimitz or Halsey–I can’t remember which–tracked down the code clerk who chose that last bit of padding and gave him the chewing out of a lifetime.

And nobody?

Great thread! Telegrams are very cool. Do people still send them?

Anyhow, I was prompted to dig out a telegram my mother’s mother sent me the night I opened in the very first play I ever did at college. The telegram was yellow, natch, and from Western Union. It reads, simply:

“Break a leg from Big Mary” (No punctuation, quotation marks are mine.)

Followed by a series of capital Ns, thus: NNNN, to designate the end of the transmission, I guess.

(Big Mary was my grandmother’s nickname.)

I guess I should point out that while a bit antiquated here in the USA, the use of “full stop” is equivilent to the use of “period” in the sense of punctuation.

So maybe a relationship there?

There is an option for sending them on the [url=“”]Western Union web site
but I think their main business now is money transfers.

SDSTAFF Ken wrote about this a year ago: Is it still possible to send a telegram? (19-Jul-2001)