Persnickety Personalities of Punctuation


You’re a writer? I’m a writer. So you know what I’m talking about. We like words; we like spending hours searching in agony for le mot juste; we like scrambling them, cross-wording them, adjusting them, deleting them, researching them, adding them, and any exercise in etymology. Still, we’re left cursing a blank page. And then! And then, the sudden downspout of consciousness that fills the page with realized potential unwisely chosen in a jumble of effort and intense concentration. It is exhilarating, and it is madness.

No, seriously, it is madness. Not one jot makes sense. Run-on sentences sprint across line after line and bump into the next. The words are a sad representation of verbal incontinence in black font. We know what comes next. We know the sentinels of good writing, the quiet guards of order, structure, and coherence, but we balk at including them because they are so exacting. But it is time, dear writer (and reader) friends to properly meet these unsung heroes of writing, these friends of masochistic grammarians, these non-word fixtures that give meaning to muddle.

The Period leaves no room for question. It is unstinting, final, and strong. Where other marks may elicit power in their showmanship, the unassuming period rests in the rightness of its responsibility. That a mere dot could contain the rambunctious letters of a sentence is further proof of its authority. It is the guardian of sentence structure, the friend of the running sentence, and the final revelation. The period is not difficult to understand, but it is absolutely essential to do so.

The Question Mark is the middle child. Often redundant or forgotten when a period can be used at the end of a “she asked” sentence, it mainly serves to indicate inflection. It is the child that retains portions of its siblings, Period and Exclamation Point, and yet remains distinctly different from all others. Its function likewise is highly specific and unique. It finishes a sentence, yes, but it indicates uncertainty in its finality. It encourages further interaction among words and punctuation alike, and in those times when an answer is elusive it introduces a haunting space not soon forgotten.

The Exclamation Point is a crutch for writers and an irritant for readers. It is the exuberant co-ed with overwhelming personality and little substance. In books, prose, and essays, not many readers want to relax with two hundred pages of shouting, exclaiming, and shocking. As an irritant for readers, the exclamation point is at its best in places wishing to irritate. Someone shouting “Get up!” to inspire an early morning wake-up is as bad as banging pots and pans to reach the same outcome.  With the exclamation point at the end of the outburst the reader is suitably annoyed by the situation and likewise by the punctuation at the end.  A Period just wouldn’t do. Well done Exclamation Point.

The Comma is a punctuation slut. It appears in very nearly every sentence and sometimes multiple times.  Its loyalty is to visibility. It is popular and indiscriminating. The intelligentsia at Harvard and Oxford embrace its gregarious and flirty figure, but the skinny models in the AP find it to be a needless space hog. The half-squiggle works in both parameters just so long as it has a place somewhere. Nevertheless, the comma reminds us to pause briefly, to consider the connection between sentence parts, and to enjoy the interplay between words.

This is in direct contrast to the underused and pretentious Semi-Colon. Rarely used and more rarely used correctly, the semi-colon appears repeatedly in academic papers delineating fine ideas supported by minutiae details. One might think that the love child of a comma and colon would have a feisty personality on the page, but the semi-colon is more academic and particular. It is comfortable and natural in 19th century verbosity but often sneaks into common writing reluctantly. It expects to be accompanied by sentences littered with impressive vocabulary and grand philosophies; it is greatly misplaced in grocery lists and modern conversations. Specifically, it is for writing; people just don’t speak in Semi-Colons.

This leaves the Colon to fend for itself, and fend it does. One period standing on another like two kids in the deep end of the pond tempting others to “Come on in, the water is fine.” The colon beckons the reader to “Keep reading. You’re getting to some good stuff.” The colon effectively draws attention to the title or sentence in which it is used but without overshadowing the intent. In its most important role, it is the family administrator. A keen sense of natural organization surrounds Colon. Lists and labels are its specialty and maintain order in a kind but firm way. It is not accused of being as dull as its cousin, Period, but neither is it as visually flamboyant as Exclamation Point. It is functional and takes peaceful pleasure from performing its tasks effectively.

The siblings, Ellipses and Dash, are as opposite as the Period and Comma cousins. Ellipses is a lazy acrobat of writing. It looks like Colon tried to stand on the shoulders of Period and toppled over so that instead of marking the end or an upcoming important statement it prefers to say “Uh, give me a second. I swear there was something I was going to say.” Indeed it usually does have something to add, and when it gets there it’s usually a snappy, sarcastic comment followed by another Ellipses as if to say “Take your time to appreciate my genius. The rest of the sentence can’t compete.” It regularly receives the Participation Trophy and is satisfied with this semblance of achievement.

Dash essentially accomplishes the same purpose as Ellipses but with a much more sophisticated slant. Whereas the languid Ellipses strolls and smirks to the next part of the sentence, the Dash shoots through in an efficient contribution of sentence clarification or contextual substance. There is less a snarky, cynical perspective attributed to the Dash and more of a sanguine and energetic addition that contributes but keeps moving in anticipation of the rest of the thought. Where Ellipses basks in self-glory of participation, Dash excitedly moves forward through teamwork.

The list continues. Apostrophe – an exalted comma – feigns superiority as the mark closest to a letter when it claims a pronoun’s existence or creates a contraction for casual conversation. Its superiority extends further when it assumes responsibility for granting possession of one word to another. The twins, Quotation Marks, give words a voice in the midst of context, philosophies, and filler. They listen to what is being said and give it the respect it deserves – or at least the opportunity to be considered by others. When Quotation Marks wish to be heard themselves, the witty duo surrounds words of irony or sarcasm.  A close cousin, Parentheses similarly surrounds words within sentences – most often, the author’s own cherished voice – in a literary hug. The comment may be simple clarification, a sweet mention, a sentimental addition, or a snarky aside, but it is the author’s untainted thought and therefore meant to be kept safe from the barrage of scrutinized commentary before and after.

These are the personalities behind the characters on the fringes of the keyboard. These are their roles and contributions. They frustrate us, but they facilitate the reader. As unwitting accomplices to written glory or smut, they accept the conglomeration of letters on a page as the best the author has to offer. They do not judge. So maybe we’re not going to spend hours in agony searching for le ‘dot’ juste, but we should pay some respect to their functions and include them appropriately. And maybe only use them as swearword placeholders when really necessary. Like when staring at a white screen and blinking cursor.

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