Today’s guest is business writer and editor Tom Bentley. Tom is a published journalist and essayist (300+ articles), and the author of a short story collection, Flowering and Other Stories, published last spring by AuthorMike Ink. His 1999 short story, All That Glitters, won the National Steinbeck Center’s short story contest, and he has won many other nonfiction and fiction awards and contests. Check out his recent “Why I Write” post on the popular Men With Pens blog. We were thrilled that Tom agreed to guest post with WU to talk about one of the writer’s most important (and most misunderstood) tools: punctuation. When we asked him why he wanted to write a post about punctuation, he said:
Because good punctuation has always made me emotional. And because BAD punctuation has always made me emotional. Also, I’ve heard that there’s a campaign to get rid of the apostrophe. These Bolsheviks must be hunted down!
Follow Tom on his twitter @bentguy1 or his blog. Take it away, Tom!
Take a Punctuation Mark Out to Lunch
A comma, a period and a semicolon walk into a bar … oh, wait! I can’t finish the joke; I forget how it’s punctuated. Wow, tough crowd. But punctuation’s no joke, my friends—each punctuation mark has a grave (or acute) purpose: sometimes bearing a serious slant, sometimes swinging a strong, straight shoulder to torque the weight of words through thought rivers. Think of the cymbal crash of the exclamation point, the yearning intrigue of the question mark, the potential hidden menace of the semicolon.
But behind the sober, workaday faces of those little bits of pause and check, it’s not so black and white. Every punctuation mark has its own personality, much more idiosyncratic than that of a bland worker wielding the traffic signals of sentence flow. Like any of us, they appreciate the anonymity of a job well done, but at the same time, they don’t mind letting on that there’s a purple sash under the white cotton shirt.
Consider the comma. If the period is a full stop, the comma is an intake of breath, the holding of the conductor’s baton before the wrist is flicked and the words swirl. The comma is the odalisque of marks; concepts nestle within its coy curves. And as with curves, one pauses at entry and accelerates away. The comma, a curved finger that both beckons and halts.
Whereas the semicolon, top hat and all, is truly the formal gentleman of punctuation. But look closely; the semicolon also has a rakish element, the Frenchman with a beret, who with no small show of bonhomie will ask you to stop for a moment, have a smoke, a bite of croissant, invite you to consider the revolution. Then and only then can you march on. The semicolon, mannered, foppish, sincere.
The colon is much more the fussy passport clerk: stop, stop, papers please, now! You can see the words piling up, bumping behind the knees of the words ahead, but there’s no getting around the colon; words must heel. The colon, officious, waxed, but willing to negotiate—as long as standards are obeyed.
But the colon never yells. No such constraints hold the exclamation point, the train crossing of marks, all flashing lights and clanging bells. We dread the shout of “exclamation point!” in a crowded theater. More dreadful yet, its dull employ as the marketer’s cudgel. Usage is a matter of taste, and the exclamation point is the habanero.
There’s something visibly friendly about the apostrophe, particularly when it’s engaged to signal the omitted letter. The ensuing contraction doesn’t bespeak a sense of loss, but rather is casual and merry, there’s a genial wave. Heaps o’ fun. Down the ‘atch. All’s right with the world. The apostrophe is utterly offhand, but trustworthy.
Then there’s the swallowtail coat of the full stop, the period. The world threatens to end with not a whimper, but a period. It’s a sententious mark, full of itself, a round of circular reasoning. It’s remarkable that something so even, so un-elliptical (unless you add a couple of kissing cousins) has such an ego, but there it is. Period.
The parenthesis is sturdy, but a bit dull. (All punctuation marks are punctual, except for the closing parenthesis, which because of the curve of its leg, always arrives at the end of the sentence.) We’ll skip past its breathy embrace.
And since the post is going on a bit, I can only nod to that happy hand-me-the-baton coupler, the hyphen, and give but a bow to that dashing fellow—the dash. But I do want to close with a bang: an interrobang, that is.
An alloy of the question mark and the exclamation point (dubbed on Wikipedia as a “quesclamation” mark), the bang implies the asking of a question in a heightened state. Perhaps it’s apt for an epitaph in a suburban cemetery, something like “Christ, all this and they give me a view of the Safeway‽” But that mixed message of outrage and puzzlement seems terribly two-faced.
In closing, don’t forget that National Punctuation Day is coming in the fall. Be sure to take a semicolon out to lunch.