The question mark, said Gertrude Stein, is “positively revolting”. She thought the exclamation mark was “ugly” and “unnecessary” too. Cormac McCarthy shuns the semi-colon and quotation marks. At times James Joyce avoided even commas. Good prose is greeted with loud applause, but good punctuation draws attention to itself only when done badly, rather like goalkeeping.
In the beginning was the word, and each word was without spaces from one to the next. No wonder stone carvers didn’t write novels. A librarian at Alexandria in the third century BC is credited with being the first to use a system of high, intermediate and subordinate dots to instruct readers to pause and breathe—early punctuation was intended to help us with reading aloud; the silent reader came later. Much of it still does that job. Brackets are for a muttered aside; question marks denote inflection as much as interrogation. A few marks, the apostrophe and ampersand among them, stand in for something more long-winded.
Iron rules now govern the use of punctuation, but its early history was less regimented. Inverted commas, which started life in the second century BC in the margins of the text they referred to, took nearly two millennia to migrate to framing the speech they recorded. Though their function is now uniform across most languages, English, French and Chinese each use different symbols to signify the same thing. Some marks have largely died out, such as the pilcrow that once defined paragraphs within compact text. Others, like the interrobang, a 20th-century invention intended to convey a mixture of surprise and doubt, never found their way into the canon.
Arabic commas point the other way from English ones and are written on top of the line; the question mark faces the other way too, and is fatter than ours. Chinese uses a distinct pause mark for lists, a short backwards comma, and draws a full stop as a small circle. Where most tongues deposit a question or exclamation mark only at the end of a sentence, Spanish deploys them like bookends, so the clause begins with an upside-down one.
These strange little squiggles can provoke strong passions, as our six contributors show. With such a small pool to choose from, it is not their choices that are striking, so much as the reasons behind them. It would have been nice to hear a hymn of praise to every member of this select club. But even rhapsodies about punctuation must eventually come to a .
Commas are for artists. They can be applied with a fine nib or a thick brush, as a slash or a curl, with brio, delicacy or deliberation. They can be a waxing moon, a falling number nine, a clenched fist or a regal wave, a brandished hockey stick or a drunken tadpole. They are sometimes obligatory, sometimes discretionary. They may be single, like this one. Or they may come in pairs, on either side of a parenthetical phrase (Rutland, famous for its tradition of rush-strewing, is home to some notable Morris dancers) or a relative clause (Rutland, which is the smallest county in England, may also be the dullest).
Commas are also for musicians. They govern the flow of a sentence, offering advice about breathing, pausing and, by their unexpected absence, pressing on. They give rhythm. They substitute for missing conjunctions (I love Rutland, its pleasing plainness). They give emphasis (The men of Rutland are often, and always proudly, known as Raddle men). Commas do the work of an implied verb (Though undistinguished, Rutland has its admirers) or give the impression of disjointed speech or activity (We dashed through it, I wasn’t sorry).
In short, the comma is an adaptable, protean multi-tasker. It started life long ago as a device to separate passages of text into smaller fragments, and thus to aid understanding. It has evolved ever since, amid changing fashions and disputed rules. In this, it is like the English language of which it is a part. Well used, it resolves ambiguities and makes communication easier. It also makes English more fun.
The full stop is perfect for jabbers and peckers. They’re the staccato exponents of the short sentence. The dash has an obvious appeal for those who relish a backhand sweep — and to hell with the words that precede or follow it. The colon is fine for those who like to declare and deliver: first comes the announcement, then the explanation. The semi-colon plays a useful role for the indecisive; or perhaps temperamentally undecided would be a better phrase. (Brackets are beloved by those who cannot bear to leave out some irrelevant fact they happen to know.) No punctuation mark, however, can match the comma.
Among the many different kinds of people in the world, there is one in every family who packs the station wagon when going on holiday. Sometimes there are two, which can lead to conflict. In my family, unless my brother-in-law is in town, there’s just me. If I say so myself, I’m a mean packer. The aim is not to waste a single square inch of space, to fit in absolutely everything that makes a holiday fulfilling and successful (including tennis rackets, back issues of the TLS, extra beach towels and dogs), while still ensuring that the driver can see out of the back window. If you renounce this last, packing is much easier, of course; but then, as I see it, you’ve failed.
So, too, among the many different kinds of writer in the world, there are those of us who see the sentence as rather like a station wagon. In compiling the sentence, efficacy — or, more precisely, precision — is important; capacity is important; and clarity is important. This kind of writer, at least, doesn’t think in little stoppered declarative sentences. It isn’t like that. Not really ever. Perhaps for some people. But not for us. For those of us whose thoughts digress; for whom unexpected juxtapositions are exhilarating rather than tiresome; who aim, if always inadequately, to convey life’s experience in some semblance of its complexity — for such writers, the semi-colon is invaluable.
Many have complained of it (Kurt Vonnegut perhaps most famously); others (such as the Jameses, both Henry and William) have embraced it. Arguably, many of us don’t know how to use it. But if you think of this punctuation mark in musical terms, as a crotchet rest, then you may better understand its particular usefulness. A full stop is a minim rest, time enough for a full breath, in and out, whereas the semi-colon affords a briefer pause, a pause for emphasis, or for clarity, or just to get your thoughts together.
Vonnegut complained that semi-colons were “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; but the blinkered flippancy of his comment is of course absurd. Whatever else you might say about transvestite hermaphrodites, you couldn’t say they represent nothing (besides, how could there be such a thing? A hermaphrodite could never be a transvestite). So, too, with the semi-colon: its subtlety may please only a minority, but for those of us who see the point — the semi-point — nothing else will do.
The exclamation mark
I feel sorry for the exclamation mark. It used to keep such high company, mark such weighty matters of terror and villainy. “Oh damn’d Iago! O inhumane Dogge!” cries Roderigo when stabbed. “Drowned! O where?” keens Laertes of his sister Ophelia. “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!” announces the second book of Samuel. It was a punctuational effect kept on a high shelf, and used sparingly by good writers, who knew that the noise it made would carry like a gunshot.
Fowler in 1926 laid down that “excessive use of exclamation marks is…one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.” How prophetic he was. Nowadays, the exclamation mark has come down in the world, slipped from the shelf to the gutter; it is the slag of punctuation, slumming around with emoticons and OMGs. Some of My Best Friends litter their e-mails with “!!!!!!!!”, like lines of poplars by French canals. I’ve even been caught using a few of them in a row myself. And is there anything more depressing than the hand-drawn version, in which the outline of a cigar sits perkily atop a small circle?
It’s always been a strange and flexible sign, varying in strength according to the century and the language. In French it is much less forceful, so the translator of, say, “Madame Bovary” will have to prune up to 30% of Flaubert’s exclamation marks. When Emma Bovary and Rodolphe are romantically moon-gazing, and Rodolphe enthuses, “Ah! la belle nuit!”, one if not both of those marks would have to go.
How might we rescue it from its current plight? I think it’s a lost cause where the social media are concerned, but maybe salvageable in writing proper. One exemplary field where it is still used with precision is that of chess notation. Thus, “!” indicates a strong move, “!!” a very strong one; while the lovely “?!” indicates a move which is risky, quite possibly unsound, but also perhaps decisive.
I once tried to write a short story about a seduction, in which each alternating male and female move was annotated as if it were chess (the story ended, of course, in mate). Would this work in more general use? “She said she loved him! He said he loved her!! They would be happy ever after?!” It might need some development, I admit. It’s just an idea. You don’t think so? OK, I hear you. I said, I hear you!!!
Kassia St Clair
In conversation we express ourselves between and around words as much as in them. The thoughtful pause, the embarrassed lull, the frigid hush and the exquisite hesitation before a punchline add nuance to the bald landscape of syntax. Ellipses cover a multitude of short silences.
No other piece of grammatical furniture is capable of this delicate versatility. Ellipses break the constraints of textual formality without being squeaky or excitable like the exclamation mark. Where a full stop or dash can make you sound as if you’re barking orders, a well-placed ellipsis softens blunt words.
Its fortunes have risen with e-mails, texts and instant messages. Immediate, informal, midway between letters and conversation, these media have changed the way we write, and the ellipsis has done much of that work. With just three jabs of a digit you can elegantly express polite disagreement, thoughtfulness or expectation, or just let the other person know there’s more to come. A well-placed ellipsis cuts through swathes of verbosity, leaving quotes with the necessary punch to entertain or enlighten.
If these dot-dot-dots have a fault it’s that they are too easy to use. But we should not confuse them with grammatical sloppiness just because of a few trigger-happy writers. Abraham Cowley, the 17th-century poet, wrote: “Elleipsis...[leaves] something to be understood by the Reader.” Better still, it leaves them hanging on your every dot.
Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.
"The Elements of Style", Strunk & White (1918)
I love a dash. The dashing dash, the well-tempered dash, the dash that contains multitudes: to dash is to hurry, to hurl, to sketch, to season. It links, subverts and interrupts. It can mean censorship and silence; emphasis, ellipsis, equivocation. The dash is eloquent, although it is the opposite of eloqui, to speak out. A dash is a leaving-out, and yet it is always eloquent.
The elegance of the en or em dash is best understood when working with metal type, with which we used to print books. Measure the sharp-edged dash up against the letter "n" or "m". The space the dash occupies is the exact width of the letter. "Letters are signs for sounds," wrote Eric Gill; the dash fills the silent space where a sound would otherwise be.
Emily Dickinson is the most famous wielder of the dash. Growing like leaves along the limbs of her verse, her dashes disrupt. At first reading you stumble against them. So you start again.
Behind Me – dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Decode her dashes, and you find they speak the inexpressible. They are at the breaking point of speech; they are the unsayable. They show us—in the words of David Foster Wallace, a parenthetical writer if ever there was one—"what it is to be a fucking human being".
A dash is the beginning of the line. It demarcates dialogue. It is the intake of breath before you say
– I want you.
A dash is the space between the lines. It is a stone skimmed along the surface of language, and it leaves its ripples in our speech.
And a dash is the end of the line. I imagine death as an em dash. We are always interrupted by the end.
Nowadays we write with more than a dash of dashes—in e-mails, in text messages, in tweets, they dovetail our high-speed thoughts. They syncopate our interjectory, swift-flowing modern speech. I’m sure I use them too often.
But they’re d–d useful.
&. Ampersand. Amperzand. Ampussyand. Ampassy. Emperzam. Its various names over the centuries sound like spells. It sits, on the computer keyboard I’m writing at now, above the number 7, between the ^ and the *. On the keyboard of the portable typewriter I first typed on, it sat on its own designated key, quite near the middle of the top row, between the _ and the ’.
The word “ampersand” arises etymologically from an adding-together of things, a fusion of the words and the figure — “and (&) per se and”. Its visual form comes from a putting-together of the letters E and T, which together spell et, the Latin for “and”. The earliest ampersand we know about (so far) is on papyrus dating from 45AD; there’s a happy-looking & in the graffiti someone scratched on a wall in Pompeii not long before Vesuvius erupted. Over the centuries its friendly form, a combination of circle, semicircle and open gesture, even became the unofficial 27th letter of our alphabet. Children used to learn to read by reciting out loud, “A per se A, B per se B, C per se C”, not from A to Z but from A to &.
“The pen commandeth only 26 letters,” the poet Robert Southey wrote to the author and painter Mary Barker in 1802. “It can only range between A and Z; these are its limits — I had forgotten and-pussy-and...” He nods to the ampersand’s nature, one of unexpected surprise, a gift of something extra waiting quietly among the materials with which we write.
I like it for exactly this cat-like quality, slinking between punctuation and letterhood. I love the way its creature-like, almost human-looking form is complete yet open-armed, even welcoming. If I’m choosing a typeface, I always look to the ampersand first, because it reveals the font’s nature. Most of all, though, I love its essential visual neatness, the way it enacts and holds its own meaning, its shape always making one thing out of two disparate things.