The Imagined Lives of Punctuation Marks

We feel strongly about the punctuation we interact with in our daily lives. Today, we learn something about the @ that we did not know, leading us to wonder about the personality traits of our other favorite grammatical marks?

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In a recent informal Twitter survey of which punctuation marks one would marry, kill, or you-know-what, we found a strong reaction in favor of keeping the em-dash alive. Others preferred the semi-colon, although, in fairness, some would not even be seen in the same room as the semi-colon. The point is, we're particular about punctuation. Hanging around the question mark or the period so often has made some consider those marks familiar and lovable; to others, they are boring, dull entities one would never agree to have a drink with, even if someone else picked up the tab.

It is with this in mind that I eagerly turned to William F. Allman's piece in Smithsonian Magazine, "The Accidental History of the @ Symbol." We see that little symbol all the time, at the start of email addresses, in our tweets, sometimes as shorthand for about. What might we learn about the @ that we don't know already? Allman writes:

The origin of the symbol itself, one of the most graceful characters on the keyboard, is something of a mystery. One theory is that medieval monks, looking for shortcuts while copying manuscripts, converted the Latin word for “toward”—ad—to “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. Or it came from the French word for “at”—à—and scribes, striving for efficiency, swept the nib of the pen around the top and side. Or the symbol evolved from an abbreviation of “each at”—the “a” being encased by an “e.” The first documented use was in 1536, in a letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae, which were shipped in large clay jars.

Later, the @ became related to commerce, to signify "at the rate of." In 1971, though @ had its big moment, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson used it as a symbol to connect the parts of the early email address. "With that message, the ancient @, once nearly obsolete, became the symbolic linchpin of a revolution in how humans connect," writes Allman.

Would that all symbols could have such inspiring comebacks, such emotional strength and fortitude! Since punctuation marks can't talk, though, we could only imagine the personality traits and characteristics of a few of our other favorites.

The Em-Dash. Em-dash is complicated, and she's not about to let you forget it. It takes three keys to create her, after all. She lives on the blood of baby hyphens, and one time, in a bar, while very drunk, she stole En-Dash's purse and took it home with her. When En-Dash called the next day  to ask if she'd mistaken the purse for her own (En-Dash doesn't get out much, but she knows things), Em-Dash denied everything. She loves long walks across bridges, pork soup dumplings, the sunset, and standing in lines. Actually, she hates standing in lines, but since she is her own line, she never has to. She is something of an attention-grabber, and can be a bit touchy-feely, but she only means to help people connect. She's a lover—not a fighter.

The Colon. Once upon a time, two dots met one another in the forest, and decided to join forces to become a taller, better series of dots. The Colon, too proud to hunker down on the ground to  look for a third, remained a twosome, while the Ellipses crouched and became three. Unlike the Ellipses, who is insecure and prone to passive-aggressive behaviors, not to mention a bit of a commitment-phobe, the Colon knows exactly who he is, and has no problem saying it. He likes to speak with deliberate pauses, and often clears his throat for enunciation purposes before uttering something truly damning about someone [That guy: A jerk!]. His favorite foods are ants on a log, Raisinettes, and pepperoni pizza. Colon: Never minds being the designated driver.

The Semi-Colon. This unique breed comes around only once in a while, and when she does, she expects to be taken care of. She travels with an entourage. Semi-Colon has an eclectic though indisputably stylish sense of fashion, and when she's not working (she doesn't get out of bed for less than $10,000, and, yes, her legs are insured), she spends her time lolling about on a divan and eating bon bons, then whitening her teeth. But she, like the prototypical French woman, has no trouble maintaining the perfect weight; she'll always have those womanly curves.

The Period. The period is the good-on-paper guy or girl (he/she is unisex, really). You'll never really fall in love, but you'll appreciate and respect the Period deeply. And you do, at the end of the day, realize in your heart of hearts that you need him or her. Inevitably, however, you'll cheat on the Period with the Ampersand, Semi-Colon, or possibly the Interrobang. The Period keeps an impeccably clean house and can be relied upon to come and visit you in the hospital. He/she always forgives. Full-stop.

The Comma. The Semi-Colon's jealous and slightly less beautiful sister, the Comma, was the one who had to clean the room they shared, cover for her sister when she snuck out at night despite being grounded, and drive the both of them to school so that Semi could take a nap on the way. The Comma is bitter, but that's not going to keep her from showing up to work everyday; she's practical, too. She loves dogs and makes really good brownies, with nuts in them.

The Exclamation Point. The Exclamation Point is the punch in the gut of punctuation and a bit of a loose cannon, but in the best possible way: She's a fun punch in the gut! She is distantly related to the Semi-Colon and the Colon and also the Em-Dash, and, really, whatever I say here matters not because this is her year. Loves horror movies! And comedies! Yay! Eff you! Sometimes she travels in packs!!!

The Parentheses. This one keeps to himself, most of the time. But if he does let you in, you will experience a world unto itself. Favorite color: purple, the color of royalty. Enjoys back massages (giving and receiving).

The Emoticon. Needy, needy, needy! But useful to have around in a pinch. Will never talk about you behind your back, even though you will definitely talk about her. Not really a "punctuation mark" anyway. Also, enjoys personal computing; never makes a phone call when instead she can text. ;-)

The Ampersand. The Ampersand is an artist and dancer and amateur calligrapher who always smells of fragrant lilacs. She serves cupcakes when you come and visit for tea, and they are decorated perfectly in a pastel frosting that's neither to sweet nor too tart. Her favorite color is lemon yellow, and she shops at Anthropologie, where she picked up a symbol of herself that's displayed prominently in her apartment, even if she knows that's a bit narcissistic. Is being proud of oneself so wrong? & no, she says it's not.

The Interrobang. Generally tripping in some form or another, the Interrobang is relatively new to this world and thus highly experimental. He's always down for muddy outdoor concerts and to see the foreign art films your other friends refuse to go to. Dabbles in nudity; usually has weed. Wanna party?!

The Question Mark. Highly insecure, the poor Question Mark only wants answers, and yet, never can muster enough authority to determine what those questions actually are. Still, she is useful to have around, and is a good listener, if you don't mind the high-pitch with which she ends her phrases. You love clogs, too, right? Right???

The Symbol for an Obscenity. !@#$!@$#!@ will tell you off just as soon as to look at you, but he's fun to have around at parties and when truckers are giving you the finger on the highway, as well as on the off-chance you get your pinky caught in a door. Never met a bar brawl he didn't like. Borderline sociopath, this @!*%$?-er owns a chihuahua.

Insets via Flickr/LEOL30; Flickr/Leo Reynolds; Flickr/John Bell.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.