Tuesday, June 24, 2008


It’s the traffic light in conversations and good books. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the Information Superhighway, in an argument, at a business meeting, or telling a story to your two-year-old. Dashes and dots are here to stay, long after Morse Code and the telegram have become antiquated and replaced by far more sophisticated messaging systems. Commas, periods, semicolons … ellipses (those three dots I love) … exclamation points! Without them, life would be one big run-on sentence we’d live in a boring monotone. Punctuation helps give meaning to our lives.

Once I had a very dramatic example of how punctuation can change everything. My boyfriend lived on the East Coast, and he was trying to get a transfer to my California city. I had this dream in which someone said to me, “There’s no way he won’t get it.” I couldn’t wait to share this good omen with him.

To our mutual disappointment, he did not get the job here. I was stunned. That’s when I realized I had “heard” the sentence in my sleep without the proper punctuation. It must have been, “There’s no way. He won’t get it.”

What’s your favorite punctuation mark? Most people would guess I’m an exclamation point kind of a gal. They always comment on my enthusiasm and animation, and I admit, I overdid them as a teenager. (I could barely write or say a sentence without ending it with one! And –blush—I also dotted my i’s with circles and hearts.

But the dash is my true love, that pregnant pause I’m always running too fast to take in my own life. The dash is my deep breath—my stop to smell the flowers—my one-second meditation in the middle of my constant barrage of words.

Although I like the colon, I vote for a colonoscopy followed by a colonectomy and getting rid of the damned thing all together. No one knows how to use it correctly, and even when you do, because they don’t, they accuse you of improper punctuation … or they want to change it to a period. It’s just too confusing and too contentious.

Semicolons are OK, but if you really want to have fun with this stuff, read The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. She also wrote The Transitive Vampire, no doubt with tongue in cheek. Vampire is a grammar book. Like The Well Tempered Sentence, it uses hilarious examples and serious, old-fashioned woodcut type artwork. The juxtaposition of humorous sample sentences with heavy illustrations creates an ongoing irony in a grandiose attempt to make a boring subject palatable.

English is the strangest language on earth; so, it is a mystery to me why it has become the international language. I said to a friend recently, who is just starting to teach her son how to read, “So, what do you tell him? These are the rules—and these are the thousands of ways we break them everyday. And it’s OK.”

English is a maverick. It is the language of queens and scientists, who seem too straight-laced for a language so haphazard. English is even unconventional in its many dialects and regional variations throughout the world. I love that it has proliferated like ellipses out of control …

… and I bless the common ground it has given me to have friends all over the globe, whose various colloquialisms I adore, even while often wondering if we’re speaking the same mother tongue … whose speakers have become my friends that I {hug} using punctuation to convey feelings and expressions :) in an email or instant message. I am still charmed to learn from my Aussie friend that my cat winges (whines). My Canadian friend doesn’t live in the country; she lives in the bush. And I have learned to be very careful in the UK not to talk about my fanny pack (it’s a bum bag), because there, fanny means the female orifice. How does a mother explain that to her kid, even when he’s old enough for Sex Ed? (That bum rap is bound to lead to discussions with a whole lot of exclamation points!!!) And, finally, how quaint that a euphemism for swearing is a pile of haphazard punctuation marks @#$%^&*()!

Let’s face it. Punctuation orchestrates three things that are really important to me: words, feelings, and meaning. I just have to love that—period.

PS – What does your favorite punctuation mark tell you about yourself? My favorite bumper sticker belongs to the question mark: To question is the answer


Bill Chapman said...

I am not sure that English is as widespread or useful as people claim. I would like to argue the case for Esperanto as the international language.
It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at www.esperanto.net

Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.

Susannah said...

Hi Joyce, great post! :-)

I recently took a fun quiz online to find what punctuation mark I would be, the results said I was an exclamation mark, (which made me smile as I could see the truth in it.)

I have often thought that if I had to learn English now as an adult it would be so daunting that I don't think I would bother! It has so many nuances and idiocycrasies that to try and make sense of it would send me crazy. Lol.

And yes, you are right to be wary about using the term fanny pack! - Thanks for the smiles! :-)