Punctuationality (Part 1)

by Brooke Marshall — Apr 7, 2009
Punctuation Marks

It's easy to resent punctuation. Its purpose is to clarify sentences, so why are the rules governing it so complicated? There are so many exceptions, so many exceptions to exceptions — it's enough to make you want forego punctuation altogether.

Well, back when it was alive and kicking, the Latin language did just that — and it didn't stop there. Written Latin also omitted spaces between words or lowercase letters.

It sounds kinda nice, doesn't it? No more worrying about whether that comma is in the right place, and on the flip side, no more embarrassing urge to whip out a red pen and correct restaurant menus. What's not to love?

A lot, it turns out. The result of all this grammatical simplification looked a little something like this:

GALLIAESTOMNISDIVISAINPARTESTRESQUARUMUNAMINCOLUNTBELGAEALIAMAQUITANITERTIAMQUIIPSORUM
LINGUACELTAENOSTRAGALLIAPPELLANTUR

You don't need to be discipulae lingua Latina to understand how nightmarish that sentence is. Now let's see how it looks when we apply our modern grammatical conventions:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Behold the power of punctuation! Interword spacing, commas, and a period have helpfully transformed a terrifying sentence-monster into five easy-to-digest compartments.

Like it or not, punctuation is necessary. So what to do about all those hard-to-remember rules? Well, the trick is to make the same allowances for punctuation that we do for people. We all blatantly contradict ourselves in one way or another. It's these little exceptions to the rules we set for ourselves that make us that much more interesting and unique. Punctuation is no different. Rather than getting frustrated by all the exceptions to the rules, try embracing "punctuationality" — the personality of punctuation.

Naturally, a comprehensive guide to all the available punctuation in the English language is a bit beyond the scope of a single article, so instead I'll concentrate on the stylistic uses of a few commonly used marks over the course of two articles.

Ellipsis

It's an Ellipsis

I like to think of ellipses as industrious workers who don't particularly enjoy what they do for a living, but take pride in doing a good job. But when they get home, they like to unwind Michael Phelps style — and I'm not talking about swimming laps.

Most ellipses find work in the scripts for cheesy daytime soap operas. They indicate a pause, usually weighted, punctuated with a raised eyebrow or a look of desperate longing. These pauses speak melodramatic volumes.

"I... love you, Jacob."
"But Marie... we... can never be..."
"Unless..."

All that emotion, saying so much without words, is taxing on ellipses. That's why, when they get home, they order a pizza, pop in Half Baked or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and call up their best friend, Dude, to come hang out.

"Dude... I just had the funniest thought. What if..."
"What?"
"..."
"Dude?"
"Dude... I forgot what it was..."
"Dude..."

All those empty pauses signifying nothing are the ultimate in relaxation for poor, tired ellipses. They pass out around 1 a.m., wake up in time to take a shower and grab a cup, and then they're back at it, infusing our soap operas and romance novels with the right amount of over-the-top melodrama.

Join us next week for more in-depth examination of the personality you never knew punctuation had.

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