On Punctuation

I tend to speak emphatically — I gesticulate, enunciate, emphasize; I whisper, accelerate, pause; I lean in, lean out, shout. These are as easy to come by as living.

But writing can tend towards the deadpan. Which is one reason I like punctuation so much — it's the emphatic and the gestural within language. Of course, punctuation is not the only means of emphasis and gesture. Word choice, rhythm, syntax: these are quite literally what make prose pop and move. Still, the keen use of punctuation can make the deadpan sing.

Here are just some of the wonders of punctuation:

The space: Well, this may be the most used but most overlooked piece of punctuation. The space helps define a word — otherwisethingscangetquitejumbled. Of course, not using the space can be powerful, forging an allatonce effect. Within the space, hide secret rhythms.

The comma: A momentary break in continuity, like a crack in the skateboarder's sidewalk. A tempering of breath and sense.

The period: Can go staccato or be the respite at the end of a breathy idea. Use of the full stop is trickier than it seems.

The indentation: Someplace to rest, as if dangling one's feet over a cliff before forging ahead.

The colon: The pull up headlights: the punchline.

The semi-colon: A period and a comma: how fantastic is that? Stopping and not stopping at the same time.

The em dash: One of the more gestural marks, as if putting up one's hands and asking the reader to follow a tangent — but only for a moment.

Parentheses: The more discrete and discreet aside, a visible whisper, a qualification, a tangent, a drift. As language wants so much to be linear, the ability to stop and articulate is more than a luxury: it's a necessity.

The ellipsis: The mark of a lack, of the invisible, the declaration that there is a secret without declaring the secret...the ability to skip over what we know: at once a shared assumption and a claim to privacy.

The exclamation point: Turns any phrase into an emphatic: Just watch! I find the exclamation point quite useful in virtual communication — texts and brief emails: they tell my reader that the seeming solemnity of my pixellated "thanks" is, in fact, a hearty, "thanks!"

The quotation mark: A crane that lets you lift language from elsewhere and drop it in your writing — an essential tool for the bricoleur.

The question mark: Uproots sense, leaves it open and wondering. Oh, I wish English had the upside down question mark!

Italics: Not sure this counts as punctuation per se but sometimes the words themselves need to careen.

The asterisk: Like a loose hair or dangling fingernail; or a tap on the shoulder; or, rune-like, a symbol that more resides elsewhere.


what the Tee Vee taught said...


Nice performance, Coffeen.

dg said...


If I'd had textbooks written like this in high school, I'd have read them instead of rolling joints on them.

drip said...

Somebody, Joseph Epstein? Nicholson Baker? wrote an essay that talks about the em dash and the emm dash, different lengths of dashes. Nobody reads Galsworthy anymore, but he was a master at this. Maybe that's why nobody reads him any more.

drwatson said...

Wonderfully performative. Punctuation is all about speed.

I usually give a lecture about how writing and speech can come into conflict during punctuation. For example, often people who are trying to represent linguistic quirks will write them in technically grammatical ways, but absolutely wrong.

So if you are trying to have a character use fillers like "like" or "uhm," there's a way in which it's technically correct to write something like "And I told him, are you, like, being serious?" But nobody would actually pause there. It reads much better, to me at least, to say:" And I told him, are you like being serious?" (Sorry for the idiotic sentence)

I mention David Foster Wallace often - he's been my favorite writer for quite some time. I remember him starting a paragraph with "And but so" once. And it read incredibly well, even though it breaks about 14 rules. It's like when we go "And but well, see, the thing is." Or something such as this.

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