The Purpose of Punctuation

Do you have writing tics? Words that you habitually use repetitively? Maybe we should call them ticks, as they are habits that have burrowed deep into our writing. “That” is one of mine. After I write a piece, like this, for instance, I search for “that” and remove most of them.

But, did you know we also have punctuation tics? I read a fun piece this week about a study that de-worded the text of famous authors leaving nothing but the punctuation. A devised algorithm could accurately determine the author of the text over 70% of the time, based solely on punctuation! 

According to Florence Hazrat, who recently wrote a piece in Aeon on the history of punctuation,Punctuation is any glyph or sign in a text that isn’t an alphabet letter.” Punctuation, along with italicized text, is used to convey inflection and feeling that are more obvious in the spoken language. Ironically, punctuation is so important to meaning we sometimes even use it in speech, think of “air quotes” to denote irony.

I often hear from writers who are uncertain about the rules for proper punctuation. And, of course, there are some. Generally, if it improves the meaning it is proper. Take the Oxford comma, for instance. There are plenty of places where it isn’t required to convey meaning, and many editors will give it a pass. But, oh boy, it is so necessary in other places. For instance, “I’d like to thank my parents, Molly and God.” Or, “I’d like to thank my parents, Molly, and God.”

And, punctuation isn’t static. Like language, it has also evolved and continues to do so. For instance, the first glyphs on the page were the comma, the colon, and the full stop (period)—all well established by the late Middle Ages. They were soon joined by the exclamation and question marks—punctuation providing emotional emphasis and direction for intonation.

But there are places where proper punctuation doesn’t improve meaning.

When I wrote advertising copy, punctuation was often eschewed to improve meaning. For example, semi-colons at the end of each item on a bulleted list in a direct mail letter? Never! Too cluttered. This type of omission is also used to make ad copy more powerful.

On the other hand, additional punctuation can add more punch to a message: Big. Bad. Barbara.

We know those aren’t real sentences. But using a full stop after each word gives extra impact – especially in tower high Helios bold. (Of course, if you used it all the time, you’d sound like William Shatner.)

Over the years, not all punctuation prospects made the cut. According to Hazrat, in 1575 an English printer, Henry Denham, invented a mark denoting sarcasm. It didn’t catch on. Likewise, in 1668 another Englishman, John Wilkins, offered the upside-down exclamation mark to denote irony. It too failed to be adopted.

Punctuation continues to evolve. Thanks to texting and Twitter, we now have hashtags and emoticons to convey stress and sincerity. Rather than the upside-down exclamation mark, we can use #sarcasm or a smiley face emoticon to convey intent. Useful too, as we all know how easy it is to misread intent in an email or text. Single-word messages with a full stop, such as “Sure.” and “Okay.” while commanding ad copy, can be read as abrupt or even hostile in a text message. Comedians Key & Peele do a hilarious bit about this.

Grammar, punctuation, and emphasis all work together to assist the meaning of your message. When you haven’t got them right, then the message can be misconstrued. For instance, this slogan for an Ontario town, “Where you want to live” (emphasis theirs).

The writer likely meant that given the choice, people would choose to live in this town for its robust quality of life. In this case, if the statement requires any meaningful italic stress, it should be on the word live—as it is the only double entendre in the tagline. “Live” meaning both reside and also enjoy to the fullest. The italic emphasis on want doesn’t convey this.

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