Monday, September 21, 2009

Punctuation Perplexity

How to punctuate interpersonal communication is a perpetual quandary for me. Though our alphabet offers quite a few marvelous marks (my favorite being the em dash), they tend to fall short in many common everyday situations.

Take courtship. When writing to a prospective paramour, one must pay attention to the smallest details. Not only the words, but also the punctuation marks between them, contribute to the substance of the overall message. For example, say you want to tell someone how great it was to meet them last night. Should you write:

It was great to meet you last night.
It was great to meet you last night!

The first sounds sterile and nonchalant, while the second comes across as overly enthusiastic and aggressive. Since the advent of the digital age, however, people have taken to creating new symbols (emoticons) to fill the semantic gaps. So we have a third option:

It was great to meet you last night : )

This smiley communicates the necessary flirtatiousness, without being too over-the-top. Professional emails may also be subject to this tonal ambiguity.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me yesterday.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me yesterday!

While the first sounds objective and slightly sterile, the second may come across as unctuous. After agonizing over this decision many times, I finally came up with a solution: the ellipsis.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me yesterday...I hope to hear back from you soon!

In this case, the exclamation point feels less forced, since it is now emphasizing two points, connected by those three helpful dots. An ellipsis comes in handy in all kinds of situations, and has become my go-to punctuation when none others seem to do. In fact, I recently met someone whose ellipsis-affinity is even stronger than mine. All of his text messages use ellipses as substitutes or add-ons for other punctuation marks (On way... Good deal...K... OMG....!!! Really...???). As an ellipsis lover, I felt true kinship with this person.

There are many marks that are rarely seen, but fill in important gaps in the usual punctuation bank. The interrobang (‽), for example, combines a question mark and exclamation point, and would likely be used extensively were it included on keyboards. Personally, I've always found there to be an excess of symmetric enclosures--{}[]()<> on keyboards, some of which could surely be relegated to the "symbols" box for their occasional use, freeing up valuable keyboard space.

As language continues to evolve, people will surely find new uses for existing marks and perhaps create new ones. In fact, the first mark used to separate sentences was the interpunct ( · ), common in Ancient Latin texts. Who knows what linguistic transformations will take place over the coming years to affect punctuation. (Should I end that with a period or a question mark? Hmmmmm...)

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