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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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?