My appreciation for punctuation began when I discovered the poetry of e.e. cummings. His spare, unconventional use of these symbols and other writing conventions made me see the marks in a whole new way. They were elegant, strong—as powerful as a polysyllabic word in his hands. Out of context, their controlling purpose found freedom of expression.
As I morphed from poet to editor, my fascination with punctuation came full circle. I learned to wield its power for function to accentuate form… handled deftly, punctuation works almost invisibly, allowing a reader to drift into a story and forget that its transformative world was created entirely of abstract symbols on paper.
I recently thought my fellow Dragonfly editors might feel a similar kinship to punctuation. I asked a simple question: What’s your favorite punctuation mark, and why?* Here’s what I got.
My favorite punctuation mark is the comma. I use it too frequently, even when it’s not grammatically correct. Two years of texting have conditioned me to pen constructions such as these:
Going to grocery, need anything?
Me go Chipotle, what you want?
Me home 3pm, where kids?
I see now that my casual writing style has been reduced to Tarzan-level. Me want text. Me no care ‘bout proper grammar. As a copyeditor, it’s hard for me to admit this, but it’s true.
I love em dashes—my thoughts are full of digressions.
Em dash. It’s so controlling! It likes to interrupt and make you wait. It’s the punctuation mark with balls—just not literally.
My initial reaction was the em dash. I like the graphic quality of it—it opens up a space and allows a thought to drop in, adding a layer or emphasis. It also comes in handy for transcribing, when speakers get to wandering around in what they want to say. Then I said, “Wait a minute—what about the period?” That lowly little dot that is like a fist**… hmmm… No, I admire the period, but it’s not my favorite. I feel sorry for the comma—the most used and abused of all marks. The poor thing gets sprinkled in thither and yon or else left out with no respect to the proprieties. Then there’s the semicolon; no, it’s too complicated. The parenthesis? (Things set in parentheses often seem distracting.) Ellipsis? The dreamy cousin of punctuation marks…yes, I have a certain fondness for this one. But I’ll stick with the em dash as my favorite—at least for today.
Ellipses all the way… Love me some mystery… Email smiley is a close second. Exclamation marks skid into third with me. I love how exciting and celebratory they are!!
The semicolon is the most versatile of punctuation marks and ranks at the top of the list. It is like a traffic cop. It neatly separates important sentence segments, which is absolutely necessary to the proper understanding of complex sentences. The semicolon facilitates and permits the serial comma to do its job. Without the semicolon in more meaty sentences, the poor serial comma would be absolutely adrift, lost—leading to all sorts of confusion. The semicolon is so powerful; it can easily replace a sentence-ending period whenever it wants (like it did in this sentence). Perhaps the only thing to add is that the semicolon continues to patiently wait for the greater respect due it by writers of all stripes.
Magi Walker (that’s me):
I confess, I am dazzled by the flare of an exclamation mark—and who can resist the deliciously onomatopoetic interrobang?! But the apostrophe wins my heart as punctuation’s unsung hero. It’s a beautiful word: apostrophe. It is the lofty cousin of the common comma and the multi-faceted twin of the single quotation mark. An apostrophe holds a place in line. It stands in for others, silently doing their job. It fuses two into one, slicing syllables without sacrificing sense. It implies a manner of speaking and lends a conversational tone. It softens the blow of the nots in this life. And it announces a belonging.
* Of course, if we have our punctuation pets, we have our pet peeves, too. I’ll uncover the annoying side of punctuation in a future post.
** Punctuation Kung Fu was created in Suffolk, England, to teach the mechanics of sentence structure to kids. It pairs fighting moves (such as the Full Stop Fist Punch) and sounds (HA!) with the rules of applying punctuation symbols.
Margaret Walker edits, writes, and reads—and thrives on the evolution of language.