Our Favorite Punctuation

Today is National Punctuation Day. Today, a day for celebrating the marks that make our writing readable, is a good day for grammar nerds. Because we are, in fact, grammar nerds, we bring you our two favorite punctuation marks.

The Semicolon
by Miriam

I love the semicolon.

It is a beautiful grammatical device, neatly linking two parts of one thought. Though a high school English teacher once accused me of using more semicolons in a single paper than he had used in his entire life, I am not a semicolon addict; I have never once given in to the urge to use a semicolon twice in a single sentence. This forbearance has not always come easily; it would be so easy to give in to the semicolon’s flow, its gentle leadership from one clause to another. The semicolon is a good dancer, leading its partner through the steps of an at times complicated dance. It is an energetic schoolchild, at the front of the line for follow the leader. It is a scout, not selling Thin Mints but looking ahead to warn us that the path does not end as soon as we think; rather, the path continues on.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” (A Man Without a Country) Leaving aside the issue of how a hermaphrodite can be a transvestite, I say: bring on the transvestite hermaphrodites; let them represent nothing but their own selves.

Ellipses by Hannah

In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, President Bartlett passes the time during a poker game by asking his staff to name the fourteen punctuation marks in standard English. You’ve got your periods, your commas, your question marks and exclamation points, but ellipses are the very last on the list. I think that’s kind of telling, that people tend to think of ellipses more as placeholders than as Offical Grammatical Entities. They’re useful when you’re quoting, sure, but sticking ellipses at the end of a sentence? That’s just lazy.

I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to use ellipses than to articulate a conclusion to your thoughts. And in a world where most communication involves typed messages instead of vocal chords, using ellipses is just one more informality, one step farther from Strunk and White’s ideal world. But isn’t there also something open and inviting about ellipses? Like, a sort of little admission that you don’t know everything, that there’s always more to be said? I end way too many emails with ellipses, I admit it, but what I’m usually trying to say is, “This is an open discussion! Tell me what you think!” And also, “That’s what I have to say for now, but I’ll keep thinking about it.” And maybe even, “That’s what I think, but I could be persuaded otherwise.”

So I say, those are three pretty expressive little dots, there…

5 Comments

  1. Bruce Hamilton
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Taking minutes during a meeting once, I typed an ellipsis using the keyboard shortcut (to get the ellipsis character rather than three dots). Craig Johnson, sitting next to me, commented that he rarely saw people do that.

    I don’t know who was more impressed — he that I knew and used the shortcut, or I that he noticed!

  2. Hannah
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m impressed by you both. There’s a keyboard shortcut for ellipses?! I’ll have to find it… (I typed all those dots out individually)

  3. Posted September 24, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    The keyboard shortcut for ellipses is apparently option+; thus neatly combining our favorite punctuation.

  4. Bruce Hamilton
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    The nice thing about the single character is that word processors never break it across a line boundary.

  5. Louise
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    But the shortcut does not space out the ellipses dots correctly, which require a space between each, as so . . .


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Miriam at Lee & Low Books writes: The semicolon is a good dancer, leading its partner through the steps of an at times complicated [...]

  2. [...] miss it, though?  The good people at the Lee & Low blog The Open Book.  In Our Favorite Punctuation they offer odes to semicolons, ellipses, and other "expressive little dots".  [...]

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