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Punctuate this; however, please: hold the emoticons

February 2011

Citizens are taught to respect their elders, and punctuation is far older than any of us, being born on the sheets of ancient texts as a means to indicate pauses during speeches.

The period is the smallest and most serious of these marks, letting a reader or speaker know that they must stop, take a breath, let the previous words settle into the minds of the recipients. A comma is more relaxed—pause, but go on; you’ll find more on this thought as you let out your breath. The elegant, subtle and oft-misused semi-colon settles between the two, gathering thoughts close but denying them the friendship of a comma or the marriage consummated by “and.”

Beyond these matriarchs of modern punctuation we find the beauty of emdashs—lines that turn a vanilla sentence into a chocolate treat infused with a separate flavour—and colons, used most often to let us know there’s a list coming and if you’re planning on having a snooze, now’s a good time.

The colon, semi-colon and parenthetical marks have lately suffered the indignity of the emoticon, those wretched smiley faces, winks and frowns used in electronic correspondence by writers unsure the power of their sentences will reflect the feeling behind their words.

The bad boy of the punctuation world has always been the apostrophe. It insists on turning up in the wrong places, flipping a possessive on its head, rendering syntax mysterious, inscrutable or downright laughable.

And the poor quotation mark. Though it benefits from being the only punctuation to make its way into popular culture as a hand signal indicating sarcasm (curl two fingers of each hand beside your ears as you say a word in a full sentence and see whether people take you seriously), it suffers abuse at the hands of sign-makers who, perhaps, are unsure whether their “home-baked” bread is really baked at home or whether their “new” product has actually been seen before.

Ernest Hemmingway, master of the short, journalistic sentence, had advice for those who get worked up over serial commas, ellipses and other marks: “You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

Know the rules. Then you may break them.



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