Metaphysical significance of punctuation marks (a)
June 8, 2002 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Metaphysical significance of punctuation marks (a) Periods . and commas , are lovely because they are simple... Semicolons ; are pretentious and overactive...Italics rarely fail to insult the reader's intelligence..."Quotation marks" create the spurious impression of an aristocracy of sensibility...The exclamation point ! is obviously too emphatic, too childish, for our sophisticated ways...Questions ? and exclamations ! betray a sense of inquisitiveness and wonder that is distinctly unmodern....(parentheses) and - dashes - betoken stylistic laziness, a failure of discipline....(a) content footnotes are symbols of failure.
posted by Voyageman (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by Down10 at 12:59 PM on June 8, 2002

Beautiful essay. And I thought *I* spent a lot of time thinking about punctuation. I differ with him on some specifics (as a journalist, I've been taught to remove the serial comma, and I think exclamation marks are almost always unnecessary), but I'm always happy when somebody waxes lyrical about the nitty-gritty details of writing.
posted by diddlegnome at 1:28 PM on June 8, 2002

posted by fuq at 1:32 PM on June 8, 2002

Anyone who has read Tristram Shandy — or any of many other 18th century English novels — will have become familiar with an effusive, abusive use of the dash mark. Personally, I love it.

I agree with the author that semicolons, parentheses, and other marks reflect sloppy expository writing. In most current fiction, however, I think the rarer forms of punctuation are underused.

Many writers seem to follow rules like these — learned from expository writing classes or gleaned from reading Hemingway — and the end result, is dull, dull, dull.

As the author points out, punctuation can be every bit as expresive as words.
posted by oddovid at 2:03 PM on June 8, 2002

love: the colon
posted by tsarfan at 2:13 PM on June 8, 2002

yes - he doesn't mention the new:punctution or my favourite, the ellipsis...
posted by cogat at 2:22 PM on June 8, 2002

They're all just tools...their effectiveness is in the skill of the user.
posted by rushmc at 2:55 PM on June 8, 2002

um, how exactly are you supposed to demarcate what someone said without a quotation mark?
posted by delmoi at 2:58 PM on June 8, 2002

Nonetheless, if the undergraduate essays I see are representative, we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons.

This is news; for years I have feared that the semicolon was becoming archaic in American written English usage. I've seen too many comma splices, and they jar me. Correct punctuation permits quicker reading.

A guide to semicolon usage is here. If Robinson would rather see his students use coordinating conjuctions with commas to join independent clauses, then I see his point.

Don't get me started on forming plurals erroneously with an apostrophe and an "s".
posted by skibird at 3:18 PM on June 8, 2002

The comparison with the Chicago Manual of Style recommendations ought to be interesting.

I certainly agree that there is a significance to punctuation that goes beyond the prosaic rules of grammar, but certainly there is formal writing and informal writing and there are, absolutely, places where any rule ought to be broken. Fiction writing, especially, calls often for variations such as incomplete sentences and florid passages, which wouldn't be acceptable elsewhere. Selecting when to do this is as much a matter of tactical writing as strategic stylistic directions. I like the dash -- and I'd use it more if it were easy to produce on a computer. (That double-hyphen is a poor substitute.)
posted by dhartung at 3:34 PM on June 8, 2002

how exactly are you supposed to demarcate what someone said without a quotation mark?

I don't think that's what he's on about, although he's not very clear just what his problem is with quotation marks. He disdains their use as a way of "distancing." I'm not sure what he means, but it could be this: Some people use unnecessary quotation marks around slang terms or puns. That just apologizes for the use of the slang or the pun, and it looks stupid.

What looks worse, though, is the use of quotation marks in an attempt to add emphasis. This occurs a lot in newspaper ads, like this catchphrase I once saw in an ad for a carpet-cleaning service: Call "us" on the carpet. Arggh.
posted by diddlegnome at 3:36 PM on June 8, 2002

Funny. If he gets upset at a comma being removed from his sentence, what gives him the right to complain about effusive semicolons? How does he know they don't serve some deeper purpose?

posted by clevershark at 4:07 PM on June 8, 2002

Hah. Reminds me of a TV add here in Chicago for some bankruptcy lawyer. There's this thing at the bottom of the screen telling you to order his FREE ((Audio)) ((Tapes)).
What're those supposed to be, radio waves?
posted by Su at 4:07 PM on June 8, 2002

yes, this guy definitely sounds like a bit of a snob, and his article is masturbatory, but still quite enjoyable. the enjoyable aspect is the discussion of the semantic value of punctuation marks, the codification of written language. punctuation marks are like instructions, i think they can be compared in fact to a mark-up language like html, interpreted on a different level to the words they punctuate. i did not enjoy the author's discussion of his emotional response to punctuation marks, as this is where his prejudice is presented, and i think his prejudice is a barrier to communication as much as punctuation is an aid to it. i think that for punctuation to be effective it needs to have only a symbolic meaning, not an emotional meaning.
posted by mokey at 4:27 PM on June 8, 2002

Wonder what he thinks about the interrobang.
posted by j.edwards at 4:32 PM on June 8, 2002

This week's issue of the New Yorker has a curious story by Jonathan Safran Foer called "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" (sorry, not online). It's playing with giving meaning to a bunch of wingdings. Silly but worth seeking out.
posted by muckster at 4:46 PM on June 8, 2002

Don't get me started on forming plurals erroneously with an apostrophe and an "s".

Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots
posted by jzed at 4:55 PM on June 8, 2002

darthung: It's called an em-dash, and it's perfectly acceptable to use, IMHO. On a PC, the em-dash is Alt+0151. On Mac, it's Option+Shift+dash.
To enter it in HTML (which won't always work—the unicode may not translate in fields, forms, etc.), type —
The camp is still divided on whether or not an em-dash should be surrounded by spaces. Follow your heart.

Anyone else reminded of that Chris Farley bit on SNL where he would make finger "air quotes" for every other word he said? (The people I "work" with "suggested" that I "shower" and put on "deoderant.")
posted by Down10 at 5:00 PM on June 8, 2002

posted by darukaru at 5:02 PM on June 8, 2002

But, in the vein of what Darthung said, alt-0501 is not easy, and it certainly breaks the rythem of writing to enter it. We need better keyboards.
posted by Nothing at 5:07 PM on June 8, 2002

Actually, darakaru, there are supposed to be three @s near the end of #@!&%&*(%*#(*#$*$(%(*#$##$!@@@$#$.
posted by diddlegnome at 5:22 PM on June 8, 2002

Exactly. Thanks, jzed.
posted by skibird at 6:14 PM on June 8, 2002

Odd that for all the nit picking what is not noted is the newer use on computer writing which makes but one space rather than two after a period to begin a new sentence. Seems that the speed of composing on puter makes it much easier to use but the one space though tracditional grammers all call for two spaces.
posted by Postroad at 6:29 PM on June 8, 2002

iirc, Mavis Beacon had the option of one or two spaces after a period.
posted by hobbes at 7:23 PM on June 8, 2002

what is not noted is the newer use on computer writing which makes but one space rather than two after a period to begin a new sentence

If you mean that that isn't noted in the essay, postroad, that may be because it was written in 1980.
posted by diddlegnome at 7:41 PM on June 8, 2002

"Traditional" though two-spaces-after-period may be, Postroad, it's still wrong, typographically. The two-space rule is a relic of the days of typewriters and their monospaced fonts. Crude letterspacing made the extra syntactic spacing after the period necessary. Nowadays, laying out text in the word processor of your choice, you're more than likely using a proportional font, and for this the better choice is one space. More detailed analysis available elsewhere.
posted by letourneau at 10:10 PM on June 8, 2002

In a fight beween Strunk and White vs. Salinger, you have to go with Salinger. But I see what the guy is saying. Puctuation should be a priveledge, not a right.
posted by Samsonov14 at 11:07 PM on June 8, 2002

And misspellings are unforgiveable in any context. Especially when there'e more than one. *Hangs head in shame*
posted by Samsonov14 at 11:13 PM on June 8, 2002

posted by hobbes at 11:15 PM on June 8, 2002

The exclamation point ! is obviously too emphatic

I think exclamation marks are almost always unnecessary

I wrote an bit about the excessive use of exclamation marks, but I haven't figured out if they are marks or points.

It looks like the sibling of a question mark, so that's what I use. Does anyone know the official terminology?
posted by jaden at 12:25 AM on June 9, 2002

thanks, Leturneau!!!! I am old enough to recall the days when the electiric typewriter was a new toy. I had become a very fast typist and at one point I had even addressed envelopes in NY for a living ([piece rate basis)...Since I am still fairly fast, the one-space rather than two is very convenient and whether right or wrong (you show it is correct) I have switched proving that you can get an old dog to do new tricks, esp. if it makes doggie's life simpler.
posted by Postroad at 4:34 AM on June 9, 2002

um, how exactly are you supposed to demarcate what someone said without a quotation mark?

Like the French. In general, in a series of paragraphs, only the first bit of dialog has an opening quote like this: « (« or option-backslash on a Mac; shift-option-backslash to close). The quotes are separated from the text they enclose by a space.

Then, each subsequent turn taken in the dialog begins with an em-dash: —

And attributions, even embedded ones, do not need to be set off by quotes, just commas. So the whole thing together looks like this:

« Bob and Mary are real swingers, Bert said.
—I think he's a whore, I replied, and he's just dragging her in.
—Well, if that's your taste. »

In novels, the quotes are often omitted altogether.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:45 AM on June 9, 2002

We called the comma before a conjunction in a series the "Harvard comma" when I first started newspapering. Now, in my own style book (yep, it exists), the comma-before-conjunction is only used to set off a series of phrases in which modifiers from a previous phrase might appear to also modify subsequent phrases, or in which the members of a series of phrases are of such a length that the series is incidental and not important, particularly if such phrases contain their own conjunctions, and under conditions in which the last item after the conjunction is intended not to be an addition to the previous two items, but an emphasis of them. This latter condition is what I call a "mistaken series."
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:56 AM on June 9, 2002

you gotta know the rules good to break 'em good.
posted by kv at 7:41 AM on June 9, 2002

I wish we were having an epidemic of semi-colons. My undergraduates tremble at the sight of one.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:29 PM on June 9, 2002

um, how exactly are you supposed to demarcate what someone said without a quotation mark?

I'm pretty sure he's referring to scare quotes.
posted by straight at 10:09 AM on June 10, 2002

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