Writers' Favorite Punctuation Marks
Punctuation can be both the great love and the occasional bane of a writer's existence, and it's not strange that a love affair may crop up with regard to one of those marks—or, contrarily, perhaps a great hatred may grow.
Today is a special holiday! Happy National Punctuation Day. Punctuation can be both the great love and the occasional bane of a writer's existence, and it's not strange that a love affair may crop up with regard to one of those marks—or, contrarily, perhaps a great hatred may grow. I love them all, I do, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be the semi-colon. Or the ellipses. Or the em-dash. Perhaps the so-stylish ampersand. Others have other favorites, including the "new breed" of punctuation marks: the ever-more-creative emoticon and even the emoji. In honor of the day, we've gathered some thoughts on punctuation favorites from a few of our favorite writers and word-minded folks around the web.
— The Em-Dash
R.L. Stine, author of the upcoming adult horror novel Red Rain, renowned kid terrifier: "When a moment of true horror arises in a novel, there's no better punctuation than a —," Stine explains. Examples: "She stopped and gasped—and opened her mouth in a scream of horror." "He stumbled, fell—and toppled into the open grave."
Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and language columnist for the Boston Globe: "When I revealed in a New York Times article last year that I'm overly attached to em-dashes, I was taken to task by the redoubtable John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun. 'When you are tempted to use dashes,' he wrote, 'stop for a moment to consider whether you really want dashes there rather than commas or parentheses.' Properly chastened, I've tried to tone down my dashiness. But I still admire the artfully wielded em-dash, especially used near the end of a sentence—when it works, it really works. (Some might have preferred a semicolon in the previous sentence; I can appreciate the affection for the humble semicolon, less flashy than the em-dash.)"
. The Period
Deadspin, Gawker, and GQ's Drew Magary, author of the recent novel The Postmortal: "I'm a big fan of the period, because it means that I can take a little breather. Michael Chabon wrote a novel recently that had a 12-page sentence. Why would you do that to a reader? What kind of asshole doesn't give the reader a break once in a while? Get me to the period so that I can take a moment to digest and go eat a Pop Tart or something. Withholding that period from me is a real dick move. I also like parentheses because I can do whatever the hell I want inside of them. Commas are the worst because eight billion people have eight billion different ideas about where they're supposed to go."
The New Yorker's Ben Greenman, author of the upcoming The Slippage. "I think I like the period. I don't use it enough. Other punctuation marks can feel like crutches. They tend to crop up when you aren't thinking clearly. A semicolon can be a strategic evasion of straightforward statement. A comma can be a way of saying "ummm." Hemingway and others have given the period a bad name. They have made it a site of inarticulateness. It need not be. This need not be so." More on Greenman's thoughts on this humble piece of punctuation here (the period might have an attitude problem?).
… The Ellipses
Film critic, author, and TV personality Kurt Loder: "I am addicted to ellipses. The period, that totalitarian dot, implies a certitude that can never be ours to have. The ellipsis acknowledges that everything about any subject can never be said—that there is always the possibility of deeper contemplation, the promise of further nattering; that we are a-swim in the murky universe of modern communication. These three sweet dots are a caution and a comfort, a safe haven for the finicky soul. Surely you agree …"
Miles Klee, author of Ivyland, does: "The ellipsis ... even though Céline abused it ... I sent a story to a friend who urged me to strike the ellipses and actually write something in their place. I had been evasive … she was right, up to a point ... but points, in isolation, are distressingly final. It’s rare that I hear the full stop in common speech. Doubtless I also prefer a three-note arpeggio for superstitious reasons … cognitive disfluency does not lack for rhythm. Or you feel the sifting that a mind does. Not everything makes it onto the page …"
:) The Emoticons/Emoji
The Hairpin's Edith Zimmerman says, "My favorite is this one: t(*-*t)," learned from another emoticon-lover, Grantland's David Cho. "It's a little dude making two middle fingers," she explained when we expressed our befuddlement, because we, stuck on principles of emoticon noses, are not so emoti-savvy. In other advanced emoticonning, Cho tells us, "I recently invented a Charlie Brown emoticon that I'm pretty proud of: (3:^|). He has right to be.
Stereogum's Corban Goble adds that the relatively more simple :D, or "a colon and a D" is his favorite emoticon, while the best new emoji is the "mystical dragon fellow" available via the latest iPhone upgrade. Also, the American flag, he says, is a grand old emoji. (For emoticons, this writer favors the :P and the <3.)
; The Semi-Colon
Author, professor, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan says, "The punctuation question is an easy one for me: I talked about my love of the semicolon in my memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She paraphrased part of that for us in an email, explaining, "I've noticed that I use semicolons a lot. That punctuational rut is partly a consequence of the years I spent in grad school reading the Victorian Sages (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris), who were capable of raging on in pages-long, semicolon-studded sentences about the evils of the Industrial Revolution. But there's more to it than that. The semicolon is my psychological metaphor, my mascot. It's the punctuation mark that qualifies, hesitates, and ties together ideas and parts of a life that shot off in different directions. I come from a world where most people still don't read or hear what I have to say about books because they are oblivious to or downright suspicious of NPR, The New York Times, and all the other educated, upper-middle-class outlets where popular conversations about literature and culture take place; I now spend most of my time in a world where most people know who Stanley Fish is but have only the haziest notion of (and even less interest in) what a shop steward does."
: The Colon
Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski: "My favorite is a dictionary-specific mark of punctuation: the symbolic colon (which is a boldface colon). This colon is what immediately precedes the definition in every Merriam-Webster dictionary, and was established by Philip B. Gove, Editor-in-Chief of Webster's Third Unabridged Dictionary." Sokolowski sent us the Explanatory Notes on this character: "This dictionary uses a boldface character recognizably distinct from the usual roman colon as a linking symbol between the main entry and a definition. It stands for an unexpressed simple predicate that may be read 'is being here defined as (or by)'. It indicates that the supporting orientation immediately after the main entry is over and thus facilitates a visual jumping from word to definition." He adds, "You'll also notice that we never allow a boldface colon to be the last character on any line of text in our books—because it should be associated with and bound to what follows it."
The Humble Space
Oxford English Dictionary's Jesse Sheidlower tells us, "I once participated in a similar exercise, and in the end I concluded that the humble space is the punctuation mark to beat. People tend to argue for the expressiveness of the semicolon, or the esoteric old-fashionedness of the diaeresis. But these are all seasonings. The meat of it is the space, and if you've ever tried to read manuscripts from the era before the space was regularly used, you'll know just how important it is. It's what gives us words instead of a big lump."
There are many more, however, so many. What about the _____? The interrobang (‽)? The number sign mark, now appropriated largely for #hashtags? The fancy-schmancy impossible to spell and possibly cursed diaeresis? Please feel free to share your punctuation stories of woe and joy, pleasure and despair. And read more about punctuation personalities here.
Inset images via Flickr/Leo Reynolds; Flickr/ellajphillips; Flickr/Tom Magliery.