Lives of punctuation marks


Silk’s Post #155 — If you don’t think deeply about punctuation marks, you’re not alone. They are the ever present but rarely noticed sentinels of the sentence. The grammatical traffic cops of wordsmithery. Like the Beefeater guards at the Queen’s House, they carry out their ancient duties to bring order to the page in silent anonymity. Only when misplaced or otherwise abused do they draw attention to themselves.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, like the Beefeaters, punctuation marks really don’t change much from year to year. Actually, they don’t even change much from century to century.

Think about this: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted 111 new word entries into its lexicon, including cisexism, gramps, locovore and tradeocracy (look ’em up).

Now, when was the last time you heard of anyone adding a new punctuation mark?

Yes, there have been some experimental hybrids, but most of them have failed outside the lab. When released into the real world, they were unable to sustain themselves and had to go on unemployment.

Think of the interrobang, for instance. You’ve never heard of it? Back in 1962, ad man Martin K. Speckter thought it would be useful to splice together a question mark with an exclamation point. Whaaaat?! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Especially for advertising copy.

But, although it was incorporated into a few modern type fonts and, during the 1960s, was even included on some Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters (remember typewriters?), the interrobang is essentially homeless today. You might find one sleeping in the back alley of an obscure typeface, but it never really became a member of punctuation mark society.

Although not growing, that exclusive society has a stable population of marks that refuse to die. They may go into semi-retirement from time to time, but they never seem to be declared obsolete.

No, there’s no equivalent to the decommissioning of a word like quagswagging when it comes to punctuation marks. I can’t say I’ll miss quagswagging personally (it means to chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly), because I’d never heard it before I found it in my search for abandoned words. Perhaps a year from now it will disappear altogether, even from the logophile websites. R.I.P., quagswagging.

My point is that language changes, evolves, responds to new developments in the world, such as globalization, technology and channels for communication. Take texting, for instance. Who had ever heard of SMS language (also known as textese) 15 years ago? As they say, DBEYR – but with the pace of change in lingo, it might be more apt to say Don’t Believe Anything You Can’t Read without a decoder or a teenager by your side.

But while all that’s been going on, punctuation marks seem to have remained exactly the same. Your commas, your question marks, your semicolons.


Are there still semicolons? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw one.

Oh, right! It was in a winky smiley 😉

These textual emoticons looked for a while to be the last hope for modernization of the staid old stable of punctuation marks. Wildly creative usage of colons, parentheses, dashes and such, in fanciful combinations, sprang from the thumbs of smartphone users to cover the full spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, horror, playfulness, skepticism, boredom, and embarrassment.

It was like a punctuation mark party.

The stiff-upper-lip regiment of symbols had finally been freed from the constraints of their grammatical duties. And they went wild *\o/*

But alas, it may have been a short parole from guard duty. As soon as the punctuation marks became the life of the party, about a million techie designers began to churn out character sets of full-colour emoticons to replace them: facial expressions covering every nuance of emotion in every skin tone, clapping hands, devil faces, thumbs up, skulls, cats with hearts for eyes.

They made the lowly, home-made emoticons that were cobbled together from punctuation marks look like kindergarten stick figures 😦

(By the way, you can’t even represent emoticons the old-fashioned way using punctuation marks in a lot of current software – including WordPress; they are subjected to a kind of technological forced-retirement and automatically replaced with graphics.)

How long will it be before punctuation marks are once again relegated to enforcement of literary laws? Doing jobs like halting sentences. Or sentence fragments.

Once again, they’ll have to get their jollies by chastely separating independent clauses. Fastidious writers know that clauses can’t be trusted if left alone together in close proximity; they have a tendency to lose all control and become a run-on sentence.

Do punctuation marks question their lot in life?

Well, it probably does give them pause.

But once in a while (although it must be added that these occasions are becoming rarer), they do get to declare their enthusiasm! Or surprise!

If you’re a writer, I have a request of you: please be kind to punctuation marks. After all, they’re senior citizens, so they deserve some respect.

You’ve probably noticed that some of them don’t get out much anymore. For instance, the semicolon is almost completely restricted to non-fiction these days, especially dry reports, academic papers and legal documents. They used to gambol across the pages of literature back in their glory days, but today they aren’t running with the artsy crowd.

The truth is, most punctuation marks don’t get to have much fun, unless they find themselves a poet, or perhaps an experimental novelist.

And the shameful problem of punctuation mark abuse has proliferated in recent times. Terrible things are being done to dashes, you might have noticed. Commas are often jammed into one overcrowded sentence with wanton disregard for their comfort. At the same time, lonely colons have been seen wandering the page, looking for something to do. Even editors have been charged and convicted of casual cruelty or neglect.

So the next time you’re at the keyboard, give a thought to the lives and livelihoods of punctuation marks. Be supportive. Remember they’re still coming down from that emoticon party and are likely to be a bit sensitive.

10 thoughts on “Lives of punctuation marks

    • High calling indeed, Lizzie, and hopefully not an endangered art in our current age of incomprehensible texting! Happy commas to you.

  1. Love those new word entries! My pet complaint on punctuation (if you can call it that) is open-ended parentheses. (You know who I am talking about, right?
    Great blog post, Silk. Thanks! I needed that.

    • Yes, sometimes I think punctuation marks are the difference between literature and blurts. Hmm … Are my OC leanings showing?

  2. Very enjoyable post. I often edit mss for friends. They call me the grammar nazi, but it’s really “punctuation nazi”. They just can’t understand why they shouldn’t insert a comma any place where they hear a character pause in their dialogue (a la the Shatner comma): “Joe I don’t really, care what you, sometimes think.” But they always take my word for it [“Yes, there is a comma after the name, as in “As you see, Dr. Jones, there is nothing you can find that I cannot steal.”]. So I don’t really mind too much, once I stop grinding my teeth. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks Eugenia! I know exactly what you mean. Maybe I’ll do a future post about my other nails-on-a-chalkboard gripe: spelling. The irony is that sometimes spellcheck is your best friend, and other times your worst enemy. But it’s amazing how many writers seem to have no acquaintance with spellcheck at all!

      • What finally made me give up — not give up grinding my teeth, but give up saying anything — was the realization that for so many, it’s not that they haven’t learned to spell, but that they don’t think it matters! I have to admit, many English words used to be spelled every which way, and people got the meaning from the sound. So I decided I didn’t have a moral leg to stand on. [Just grabbed the Webster’s to make sure I spelled ‘moral’ right. Sound of laughter on the internet.]

  3. The graphic that proclaims, “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives!” always makes me smile. Despite the trend to use less commas except when needed for clarification, it doesn’t sit well with me not to put them where the Chicago Style manual dictates. I guess I’m too old school. 🙂

    • Another one I love is this grammatical gender bias test:

      “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
      “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

      Let’s hear it for the old school Carol! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Great post Silk! I love good punctuation, and abhor it when it’s bad, or neglected. I think many people now have not actually been taught what they mean and how to use them. The greatest travesty to me is the frequently unintelligible and flagrant misuse of the apostrophe. It’s clear it is completely misunderstood 😦

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