Blog Excerpts

What's Your Favorite Punctuation Mark?

In honor of National Punctuation Day, the Atlantic Wire asked "a few of our favorite writers and word-minded folks around the web" to name their favorite punctuation marks. Among the contributors was our own Ben Zimmer. Find out Ben's response and those of some other punctuation-writing writers below.

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.)"

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 …"

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."

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."

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."

You can read the entire Atlantic Wire piece here. What's your favorite punctuation mark? Let us know in the comments below!


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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 25th 2012, 5:02 AM
Comment by: Sarah S.
I vote for the often forgotten or misused apostrophe. Misunderstood and neglected, it needs all the love we writers can muster!
Tuesday September 25th 2012, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I like the interrobang!
Tuesday September 25th 2012, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Surely someone (I'll volunteer) should step up (and speak out) for those defenders (and ever-willing facilitators) of understatement, the parentheses. Working in pairs (mirror-image twins), they affectionately root for the underdog (embracing the rambling tangent, the aside, the optional phrase, the unessential details, the pleasantly meandering thoughts ... the mutters, mumbles and whispers of our lives).

That one little opening curve can say "incidentally" (or "If I may interrupt", "Oh by the way", "Perhaps I should mention", "I might add" or "Now that I think about it"), and the closing curve clears its throat and says "Now, where were we? As I was saying ..."

Sometimes the welcome interruptions (the tiny detours or minuscule vacations) that parentheses provide are the most important part of the sentence!

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday September 25th 2012, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Matthew J. (Virginia Beach, VA)
Good Day!

My favorite is the ? because it shows a questioning attitude, but I have a very funny reference to attach it too which I read the other day from P.G. Wodehouse's brilliant novel "Something New" (which you can get free on gutenberg.org)

I will set the scene. The main character, Ashe Marson, was hired by a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Peters, to pose as his valet (one of many house staff). He was at a wealthy home which had a butler named Mr. Beach who is asking about Ashe's background and when he gets puzzled he does something with his eyebrows which are brilliantly and hilariously described. I didn't think a punctuation mark could make me LOL like that :).

The pleasantest functions must come to an end, and the moment arrived when the final word on the subject of swollen joints was spoken. Ashe, who had resigned himself to a permanent contemplation of the subject, could hardly believe he heard correctly when, at the end of some ten minutes, his companion changed the conversation.

"You have been with Mr. Peters some time, Mr. Marson?"

"Eh? Oh! Oh, no only since last Wednesday."

"Indeed! Might I inquire whom you assisted before that?"

For a moment Ashe did what he would not have believed himself capable of doing—regretted that the topic of feet was no longer under discussion. The question placed him in an awkward position. If he lied and credited himself with a lengthy experience as a valet, he risked exposing himself. If he told the truth and confessed that this was his maiden effort in the capacity of gentleman's gentleman, what would the butler think? There were objections to each course, but to tell the truth was the easier of the two; so he told it.

"Your first situation?" said Mr. Beach. "Indeed!"

"I was—er—doing something else before I met Mr. Peters," said
Ashe.


Mr. Beach was too well-bred to be inquisitive, but his eyebrows were not.

"Ah!" he said. "?" cried his eyebrows. "?—?—?"

Ashe ignored the eyebrows.

"Something different," he said.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 2:36 AM
Comment by: susan P. (forest city, PA)
I am with Kurt Loder... the ellipses is the thing.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Thomas P. (New York, NY)
Is the footnote punctuation? If so, it gets my vote. I'm with David Foster Wallace, who suggested through footnotes that sometimes the text is in the subtext, literally.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Patrice B. (Fremont, CA)
Not necessarily a follower of the program, not the least because I just don't have the time, but my children have regaled me with enough clips from SNL to know that the "air quote" is an all-new punctuation mark (difficult to put down on paper, however) that has entered the lexicon of the young adult population.
Thursday September 27th 2012, 7:01 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
I love the hated air quote as well - I hate it with a passion but find there are times when I "HAVE" to use it!!!

My favourite is the exclamation mark, though!!!!!
Friday September 28th 2012, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Punctuation marks are like girls in my life – I love 'em all. They put meaning into my life.

Puntuation marks put meaning into written words.
Saturday September 29th 2012, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
As someone who's been editing a book for months, I've become highly sensitized to punctuation and agree with the behind these favorite marks. I'll look up "Something New" (thank you very much) and work on using semi-colons more often. But I've noticed that my love for the ellipsis has definitely been replaced by an aggressive use of the dash. I absolutely love giving more explanation after I've already said something important. In fact, I wouldn't describe myself as a writer, but more of an explainer of people, places, and situations--a sort of "I'm just sayin" feel to the words. And I've noticed--as one commenter suggested--that when I re-read my sentences with dashes, I try to make sure they're doing their job.
Saturday September 29th 2012, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Sorry...I see that I left out a word while looking for just the right one. My comment should read "agree with the thought behind these favorite marks." My face is red as I post this comment.
Wednesday October 31st 2012, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
i luv -nothing connects words or sentences or ideas better is what i feel - seriously!
Wednesday October 8th, 2:38 AM
Comment by: Gladys R.
My favorite is "$" - can not chase them they evaporate. "Chase them in the clouds"😘☝️😜

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