Today is National Punctuation Day. It couldn’t be called International Punctuation Day as it might cause friction. When I lived in England, it took me quite a while to adjust to the differing language: what I know as a “period,” for example, they call a “full stop.” What I know as an Oxford comma preceding the “and” in a series – such as commas, parentheses, and quotation marks – they don’t use at all. This of course made me wonder why it is called the Oxford comma, but I digress.
I am not indiscriminate in my romantic involvements. I’ve got punctuation I love and punctuation that gets up my nose. I cannot bear the rule that says a final quotation mark must follow the period. Makes no sense to me when applied to a phrase or fragment, such as in the paragraph above where I mention “full stop.” To me the period should end the overall sentence, not the closing quotation mark around what may be even a single word. Here’s what I mean: She insisted on referring to the opposition as “Repuglicans.” That quotation mark, logically, should go inside that final period, but most style sheets disagree.
I say it loud and I say it proud: I love the semi-colon. It serves as a bridge among thoughts, a kind of radical comma that keeps your options open much more than a period does. I relish decisions about whether to employ commas or semi-colons in a sentence with a series of clauses. As someone who likes reading her work aloud, when I have a question about it, I choose on the basis of whether I need a little bit of air (just a comma) or a deep breath after a clause; when the clauses themselves include commas, that’s a clear sign to separate them by semi-colons, assuming the more militant step of breaking them into separate sentences isn’t necessary.
I feel an affection for the dash and a sense of insecurity about the hyphen. Brackets only have mechanical – not creative – uses. I don’t like the word “ellipsis” and I find its corresponding punctuation marks overused and too often erroneously written, but it is nearly impossible to avoid the ellipsis when you are a journalist.
Perhaps because my entire adult reading life has centered around 19th century literature, I have spent lots of time in a world of prose that reads without a hitch. Take a sturdy but complex Dickens sentence or a narrative Austen sentence and you will find a superb skill with punctuation that guides you through to the end without detours or hiccups. Here are the first two unforgettable sentences of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – all done with commas and periods:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
Warning: Microsoft Word disagrees with Jane Austen about the comma following “universally acknowledged.” I wonder how many classic novels Microsoft's auto-grammar has written, let alone one that is beloved through centuries around the world.
If you think you have a decent handle on punctuation and want to compete, here is a contest that I am going to enter myself. It is sponsored by the National Punctuation Day folks and I’ve pasted in their instructions here:
Here are the rules for contestants competing for a box of punctuation goodies: Write one paragraph, maximum of three sentences, using these 13 punctuation marks: apostrophe, brackets, colon, comma, dash, ellipsis, exclamation point, hyphen, parentheses, period, question mark, quotation mark, and semicolon. You may use a punctuation mark more than once.
You may submit as many paragraphs as you like. Entries will be accepted at Jeff@NationalPunctuationDay.com through September 30.
And now that you have come to the end of my romantic confession, here’s an educational “rap” song about punctuation for your viewing pleasure: