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!