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Punctuation, Ranked

Not all punctuation is created equal. In relation to English grammar, I believe some punctuation just flat out sucks and should rarely be used.

That’s what today’s post is about. This is a bare bones, no frills, blunt, completely subjective look at the deep, seedy, grimey world of English punctuation.

I’ll rank the ten most often used pieces of punctuation from bottom to top:

10) Ellipses.

I just hate this one. Nobody really knows how to use it. The ellipses rarely gets used correctly and, even when it makes sense to use, it’s just ugly.

The proper way to form an ellipses is three periods with a space between each, but you’ll often see people use four, five, even six periods. The worst is using the ellipses as a replacement for a period: “Hey John…..how are you…..missed seeing you at work the other day……tell Mary I said hello!”

9) Exclamation point.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

I’ve often felt like, in serious writing, exclamation points should rarely be used. They feel like a crutch. Why not show the emotion in the writing without needing to rely on that little “!” at the end of a sentence?

That said, I use them much more than I once did, but I try to pick and choose my spots. And, more than often, I’d rather use an exclamation than a smiley face.

8) Quotation Mark

I understand the value of the quotation mark. Think of the hellish world we would live in as writers without them. Who said what? We’d be living in one giant Cormac McCarthy novel—he who, famously, never uses quotations.

And also, without quotations, Chris Farley would’ve never had a career. The problem with quotations is, again, no one really knows how to use them. Entire blogs are dedicated to their misuse.

Plus, the whole identity of the quotation mark is wrapped up in illustrating what someone else said. That’s pretty much it. The quotation has no identity of its own. Such a sad life.

7) Semicolon

Let me quote another famous writer: Kurt Vonnegut said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Well, Kurt, they represent something, but most people don’t know what that something is. They get confused with the colon, and some writers use them like a period, which might be technically correct, but I would agree with Kurt in that semicolons are perhaps the most pretentious of the punctuation marks. Unless you’re writing an academic or legal piece—(read: something formal)—I’d just avoid them altogether.

6) Apostrophe

Apostrophes aren’t all that bad. After all, they indicate possession and who doesn’t love owning stuff. However, the Christmas season is a nightmare for a good healthy apostrophe user. Ever seen this one? “Happy Holidays from the Johnson’s!”

Notice what’s wrong there? Never use an apostrophe to form a plural! This is basic, third-grade grammar. The apostrophe is so often misunderstood, but I still think it’s a respectable, good-natured punctuation. If only people would stop using it to form plurals.

5) Colon

I like the colon, and use it often. Let me tell you why: Using a colon makes me feel structured. Everything before the colon is my introduction. Then, everything after the colon is my main point.

I think it’s just a good transitional piece of punctuation. Don’t overuse it. That will only make your writing a pain to read. But, used correctly, the colon is a pleasure (that’s gross).

4) Em dash

I’m an em-dash fanatic. In fact, I probably use the em dash way too often.

I think it goes back to college when I first understood how to use it. I was probably thinking, Look, this is a fancy writer thing, and I know how to do it! Look at me! Em dash! So then I started overusing it, and then it became a crutch–one I’m still getting over to this day.

But I still love a good em dash. And to be honest, the em dash is probably a subcategory of punctuation—part of the greater dash family, which includes the en dash and the hyphen. And with the previous sentence, 101 Books has reached an unprecedented level of geekery.

3) Comma

The comma is like oxygen for your sentence. It gives your reader a subtle breather.

Use it too often, and your readers will be sucking air and completely confused by your choppy sentences. But few things are more pleasant than a well-used comma. Yes, I’m weird like that.

It’s one of the most vital pieces of punctuation in the English language. But misusing the comma, or using it too often, will kill your writing quicker than anything else. Nothing says “amateur” like an old-fashioned comma splice.

2) Period

I debated on whether to put the period as number one. If life without quotation marks would turn us all into a Cormac McCarthy novel, then life without a period would turn us all into a Virginia Woolf novel.

Although life without a period might make some husbands happy (send all your hate mail to rob.bruce76@gmail.com).

The period is the foundation of all punctuation. It really should be the top ranked punctuation mark, because it’s the most important. You can’t tell me it isn’t. But, see, this is my list, and I’m biased, so I’m making it number two.

1) Question Mark

Yes, my number one punctuation is the question mark. Think of life without a question mark—it would be nothing but dry, declarative statements and over-excited exclamations.

If you read my blog, you might notice I ask a lot of questions—heck, I make one post a week (The Monday Question) centered around them. I love questions.

That’s how we learn. Question marks are the gateway to all knowledge. Therefore, I pronounce the question mark as the number one punctuation in the English language. It is now hereby decreed as such.

Thanks for playing Mr. Period, Comma, Em-Dash, and Colon. See you later Semicolon, Ellipses, Apostrophe, Quotation, and Exclamation point.

The question mark is tops.

You agree? Disagree? Find this post absolutely inane?

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39 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m a huge grammar nerd, so this post was right up my alley. The misuse of ellipses annoys me too; what’s almost worse than a ridiculous number of periods is when the writer (I come across this in editing a lot) puts spaces around the ellipsis, but not in between each period (which I actually didn’t know was the rule—thanks!), like so:

    I went to the movies … and then I went to the store.

    Just…no. 😉

    I actually have a series of grammar posts coming up in a few weeks about how people’s misuse of apostrophes is really getting out of control. It’s truly, truly awful. And just this morning I was reading a blog post by someone who is (or claims to be) a successful editor, and yet put apostrophes in plurals throughout the post. How do people like that get jobs?

    Thanks for alerting me to the fact that Cormac McCarthy never uses quotation marks. I’ve only read The Road, which I really didn’t like (largely due to the fact that the lack of punctuation was just annoying), so now I know not to read his other books, either.

    Finally: I, too, am a huge fan of the em-dash. Fun tip if you didn’t already know: on a Mac keyboard, Opt+Shift+hyphen = em-dash! (Sorry if you’re using a Windows computer—I don’t know the shortcut for those, or if there even is one.)

    Sorry for the long-winded comment. I just have a lot of feelings.

    Liked by 3 people

    January 23, 2015
    • Thanks for sharing. Apostrophe misuse should be a misdemeanor.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 26, 2015
      • Indeed. I’ll make sure to ping you when my apostrophe posts go up so you can weigh in if you’d like. 🙂

        Like

        January 26, 2015
    • The em-dash shortcut on a PC is Alt+0151 (I was oddly excited to share that tidbit of information.)

      Liked by 1 person

      March 19, 2015
      • Good to know!! Thanks for enlightening us 😀

        Like

        March 20, 2015
  2. No, don’t hate on my semicolons! I adore them. Also I love Ursula LeGuin on semicolons. There’s a fun brain pickings article here: http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/17/ursula-k-le-guin-gender/

    Also, I use ellipses correctly and enjoy doing so, especially if I am writing in a typesetting program like LaTeX. Ellipses are beautiful when correctly typeset! They send a delighted thrill through my typographical little heart, like a beautiful drop cap.

    I agree with you on the em-dash. No quibble there.

    Liked by 2 people

    January 23, 2015
    • This was a cool read, but I have to agree with Zimmermann. I love semicolons. They make for great sentences. One the topic of question marks, I am studying Chinese and they use the character 吗(ma) at the end of sentences to indicate whether it is a yes/no question. Their grammar structure is strongly indicative of whether the sentence is a question or not. I’m not to the level of reading books, but I can’t wait to dive deeper into the structure of the language. Good post.

      Like

      January 27, 2015
  3. I have one problem with question marks used in English: You have to wait till the end of sentence before realizing it’s a sentence. In many cases this doesn’t matter as from the beginning you get an idea that the sentence is a question, not a statement. However, there are some sentences you don’t realize a going to be sentences until you get to the end. This annoying when reading aloud and discover you’ve got the intonation wrong. (Alternatively: You have to wait till the end of sentence before realizing it’s a sentence?) In Spanish this doesn’t happen as there’s an upside down question mark at the start as well as a normal one at the end. (Okay, this argument can also work for ¡! as well.) Anyway, you get the point (ho-ho). Perhaps, there’s scope for comparing punctuation in other languages?

    Liked by 1 person

    January 23, 2015
    • Great point. One of my few memories of Spanish in college was that upside down question mark.

      Like

      January 26, 2015
  4. You are creative. I generally fall asleep when I am reading about punctuation but you made it interesting. I not only stayed awake but I enjoyed it. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 23, 2015
  5. We must have been on the same wavelength this week. I was thinking deeply about punctuation recently . . . The nerd circle is now complete.

    Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses was the only book I ever threw across a room. His lack of quotes is infuriating!

    Sorry for the ellipses use. I tend to use them too much. Apparently I trail off a lot . . .

    Great post!

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  6. Reblogged this on bedsoc.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  7. Who would have thought there’d be a whole blog about unnecessary quotation marks? And, how did you find it? Very funny! (But I mean it emphatically, so I had to use an exclamation point there.) Love this post. (See? It doesn’t really look like I mean it without an exclamation point.)

    Like

    January 23, 2015
    • Sounds like a Where’s Wally project. Find the blogs with the quotation marks around them.

      Like

      January 23, 2015
  8. I use semi-colons a lot, but I do know what they’re for, and most of my writing is academic writing (presumably when I use them in texts and messages, it’s a hangover from that). They are my favourite punctuation mark. Totally agree with you on the elipse, though.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  9. This was fantastic. I hate when writers overuse semi-colons. It’s so pretentious. I hate colons though , but I appreciate when they are used correctly.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  10. I am reading a book abut grammar at the moment. Its called My Grammar And Me (Or Should That Be ‘I’?).

    Its fascinating and written in a humourous way that won’t bore you to sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 23, 2015
    • Nice. It’s a tough topic to write about without making it boring. I think Grammar Girl does a pretty good job too.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 26, 2015
  11. So why are semi colons ranked above quotation marks, if semi colons should be avoided at all costs and quotation marks are a necessity? I cannot stand books without quotation marks and might go through life without reading the likes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and James Joyce since they don’t have them. Do semi colons have that “it” factor while quotation marks, as you say, “have no identity of their own”?

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  12. Great list! And it’s shocking how many people misuse punctuation all of the time. Unnecessary apostrophes and dropped commas irk me quite a bit. The latter moreso because, as you point out, commas help convey structure and meaning to the reader. They’re so important!

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  13. Mostly agree, except for the demotion of the semicolon. Used correctly, it serves an important nuanced purpose not unlike the colon. To find one of them fussy and academic and not the other is laughable.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  14. Denise #

    Em dash is a punctuation I have never heard of and was never taught in any grammar class. I just had to Google it to even find out what it is. Is em dash legit in English punctuation? Why is it called an em dash? Why not just use commas? Is em dash strictly a typing punctuation? Is em dash used in handwriting also? I’m puzzled. I’ve seen em dash before but I’d, perhaps mistakenly, assumed the writer didn’t know how to use commas correctly. This is a fun post, and informative.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  15. Over the years I have honed my punctuation down to three. The comma, the question mark, the period. Only recently, and probably to my detriment, have I used the colon and the semi-colon. As far as the ellipsis, I used to use it. But I have given it up in favor of the dash.

    Like

    January 23, 2015
  16. I’m not going to argue with your list. Partially because OMG! I hate exclamation points! They are like the overly peppy cheerleaders of punctuation, and I’m suspicious of anyone or anything that is overly peppy. As for the rest, your list will only serve to make me more conscious of my punctuation. I’ve been punctuating so long I’ve forgotten how to be a reflective punctuator. Thanks for the wake up call.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 23, 2015
  17. ‘My least favourite is quote marks for no reason’.

    Like

    January 24, 2015
  18. I would argue that a colon is useless without a semicolon. I think the solution is to not allow anyone to leave school until they can punctuate properly…

    Like

    January 24, 2015
  19. johnchapmanauthor #

    Exclamation point – well OK but not with a question mark or multiple use.
    Quotation marks are OK too but when they are nested at the end of a quotation they just look silly as in ‘She said “He asked me “Did you see it?””‘
    The ellipsis doesn’t seem to have a standard method of usage. I hate the . . . method which includes two spaces. Personally I prefer something like… for use where a sentence is incomplete or …where something interrupts. If a quotation misses out some of the words then put a space before and after the ellipses, “We will fight them … never surrender.” Can you have four periods? Yes – if the ellipsis is at the end of a sentence. The same is true for …, and …!

    Like

    January 24, 2015
  20. johnchapmanauthor #

    Denise an em dash got it’s name because it was a dash which took the same space as the letter ‘m’ when it was typeset. There’s also an ‘en’ dash which is shorter and is a standard hyphen.

    Like

    January 24, 2015
  21. As brilliant as Wolf Hall was, I came away shaking my head over how colon happy it was. Punctuation is the unsung workhorse of good writing. If you are aware of it, chances are you are using it incorrectly or relying upon it too heavily. (I was really tempted to put an exclamation point there…)

    Like

    January 25, 2015
  22. plastykxcrayon #

    Reblogged this on the secondhand wonderland and commented:
    Punctuations are fascinating – and I never knew how to use a semi colon.

    Like

    January 25, 2015
  23. This is a fun entry. I really like what you said about question marks, “Question marks are the gateway to all knowledge”. Great point!

    Like

    January 25, 2015
  24. “two rules and a warning”

    questions need a question mark
    commas another comma
    be correct every time
    you must defend your honor

    Like

    January 26, 2015
  25. Laura #

    Great post. I love to write but am first to admit that I should sharpen my grammar. However, I do love the Oxford comma

    Like

    January 26, 2015
  26. “most people don’t know what that something is…
    rarely gets used correctly…
    no one really knows how to use them…”

    You mention this quite a lot in your post. Am I detecting a trend here?

    Like

    January 27, 2015
  27. carolinesofiyaa #

    Honestly, I thought I was the only person who ranked my favorite punctuation marks, and it was so absolutely awesome to see that I’m not the only one 🙂
    Having said that, semi colons are actually my second punctuation marks (right behind the em dash which is my FAVORITE). I like writing really long but still grammatically correct sentences (it’s really beneficial for assignments with sentence-limits and is overall very Thomas Jefferson-esque), and the semi colon gives me the perfect way to do that. And despite the fact that a lot of people don’t know how to use it, I definitely feel like its importance and a better understanding of it is rising in the world of punctuation

    Like

    July 12, 2015
  28. Great post Robert! I love exclamation marks! I have a BA in English and I must admit that I use ellipses wrong, on purpose. There’s something about them that makes a Facebook post or tweet better. It’s almost like I’m saying ponder on what I just said some more…

    Like

    May 18, 2016

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