Punctuationality (Part 2)

by Brooke Marshall — Apr 17, 2009

Part two of last week's examination of the personality of punctuation. Click here to read Part 1.

Em Dash and Hyphen

Em dash and hyphen

Em dashes and hyphens are sisters, and whenever they go out together, they get stopped by strangers.

"Are you twins? You all look so much alike!"

At this, they roll their eyes. Sure, they look similar, but it's obvious — to them, at least — that they're each completely unique.

The em dash is the eldest. She’s taller than her sister, more graceful, and a bit more aloof. She needs her space — specifically, one space on either side. Some people misinterpret her attitude as snobby because of her near-encyclopedic knowledge of famous quotes. However, since em dashes are used to indicate attribution, ("The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." — Henry David Thoreau) she’ll demurely credit her knowledge to her job.

No, the real reason she's distant at times is that she's insecure about her place in punctuation society. She has two main jobs, one as a sort of watered down parenthesis (see the third paragraph in this section), and one as a sort of watered down semicolon (see the fourth paragraph in this section), and sometimes she wonders if she's even necessary at all.

The hyphen doesn't have this problem. She's the baby, and like most younger siblings, she's a total ham — and a total copycat. Whereas em dashes link a phrase to the rest of a sentence, hyphens link words to other words. Far more social than her aloof older sister, the hyphen doesn't mind being right next to the words she links, and sometimes within the word itself.

One of her favorite games is jumping around a phrase and seeing how she can change the meaning. Take "three month old puppies," for instance. The hyphen might jump between "month" and "old" — three month-old puppies — and then squeal over the idea of three puppies, each of them a month old. Then she might jump between "three" and "month" — three-month-old puppies — and squeal again over the idea of a number of puppies, all three months old.

Whenever the hyphen plays this game, the em dash just smiles and pats her head.



We're not done with the sibling metaphor yet. I want you to think back to middle school, back when you thought you were the coolest person on the face of the earth. Yet nothing could shatter that illusion faster than when your obnoxious kid brother showed up and revealed some embarrassing detail — like the rocketship footie pajamas you wore to bed every night, or your huge crush on Daniel Radcliffe.

That's what commas are: obnoxious kid brothers.

Think about it. They're always getting underfoot, mucking things up, slowing things down, and changing what you meant to say. Need I remind you of that old punch line (also the title of a fabulous grammar guide I recommend to everyone I meet), "Eats, shoots and leaves"?

The thing about younger siblings that no one ever wanted to admit was that they were much, much cuter than we were. And that made them useful. Want a raise on your allowance? Have Li'l Brother ask Mom and Dad — no one can say no to his patented puppy-dog eyes. You broke Gumma's antique hurricane lamp? Little Sis knows just how to break the news to her. She's so cute that Gumma will practically be thanking her.

Commas, like little siblings, eat this stuff up. After all, the only reason they were constantly underfoot was because they actually believed that you were the coolest person on the face of the earth. All they wanted was to be your faithful sidekick. So the next time you’re mulling over a sentence that looks a little comma-heavy, remember that they're only trying to help.

Exclamation Point

Exclamation point

You're throwing a party, and it's dying fast. Everyone stands around awkwardly, sipping beer from their red plastic cups, not talking much, occasionally stealing glances at their wristwatches.

Just then, your exclamation point buddy shows up. He's half drunk, dressed in nothing but a Speedo and an American flag, and wielding a bottle of Patron like tennis racquet. "Who wants to get this party started?!" he yells. Within a few minutes, wallflowers are doing keg stands in your bathtub, there's a heated beer pong tournament in your kitchen, Mardi Gras beads are flying left and right, and a hip jam band has materialized in your living room. The exclamation point beams. He’s done his job.

The trouble starts when he invites a few more of his friends. They trickle in one by one, until they outnumber your party guests, and then the real pandemonium ensues. The jam band has turned into a thrash punk outfit, and the mosh pit is crushing your furniture. The beer pong tournament devolves into fight club — one guy punches another in the jaw and gets thrown through a wall for his trouble. Everyone who did a keg stand is violently ill. But the exclamation points are just getting started. Just then, the house is bathed in flashing blue and white lights. "It's the cops! Cheese it!" your exclamation point buddy yells, and everyone splits. You're left with thousands of dollars worth of property damage and medical bills.

The point of this cautionary tale is that exclamation points are fun, but too many of them can land you in big trouble. Limit use of exclamation points to one per paragraph, otherwise you run the risk of your punctuation speaking louder than your words.

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