Have you ever been ticketed for a rolling stop? In case you’re not familiar with the term, a rolling stop means you slowed down at a stop sign, maybe even almost stopped, but didn’t come to a full and complete standstill. A friend of mine was once pulled over for this shocking violation. Luckily, she got off with a warning.
This Brings Me to the Subject of Punctuation
I’m not kidding. I’ll get to the rolling stop in a minute, but first let me say this: punctuation exists to aid reading comprehension. That’s it—the sole purpose of those little marks we type. They exist to make meaning clear. In English, the most common punctuation marks include:
The Quaint Question Mark
The purpose of a question mark at the end of a clause or sentence is (unsurprisingly) to indicate a question. The punctuation tells the reader how to read the sentence, ending perhaps with a slight rise in inflection or change in tone. Spanish goes a step further in reading comprehension, using an upside-down question mark at the beginning of an interrogatory sentence, sensibly and helpfully signaling how to read the sentence in advance: ¿The girl wasn’t with you?
Did you know that a backward question mark was used briefly in English? Originally proposed by Henry Denham in 1580, it never caught on. If it had, we’d be typing questions this way: Did you hear me⸮
The Excitable Exclamation Point
Known colloquially as a bang or a shriek (I love that so much!), exclamation points go at the end of exclamatory sentences, sentence fragments, or sudden interjections. They signal that the words express strong emotion or surprise, indicating how the words should sound when spoken.
Did you know the exclamation point key wasn’t added to the typewriter keyboard until 1970? Before that, you had to type a period and then backspace to add an apostrophe above it. Way too much effort if you ask me.
The hardest thing about using an exclamation point is knowing when not to use one. Everyone has an opinion. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that using exclamation points is like laughing at your own jokes. After a while, your readers will ignore them or (worse) become annoyed. Elmore Leonard famously decreed: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose”— before using them sixteen times in his own work. Today, new writers are warned against their use. Ignore the advice at your peril!
The Confusing Colon:
I don’t know anyone who really understands when and how to use a colon—myself included. So as a service to the writing community, I shall pass along what I’ve learned: The colon has seven uses—always (and here’s the source of the confusion) following a complete sentence.
- To introduce a list — I had three favorite subjects in school: gym class, study hall, and lunch.
- To introduce a summary, restatement, or explanation of ideas presented in the preceding independent clause — Brian agreed to go to the circus for one purpose: to meet Sarah.
3. To introduce a long, formal quotation — In her novel Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen follows the turbulent romance between the daughter of a country gentleman and a wealthy aristocrat: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
4. To introduce a question — The primary question is this: Should we ignore evil or stand up to it?
5. To separate a title from its subtitle — Gone Fishin’: Crime Takes a Holiday
6. After the salutation in a formal letter — To the Board of Directors:
7. To separate hours and minutes in time — The play begins at 8:15 PM.
Which leads us to…
The Slandered Semicolon
No punctuation mark has engendered as much irrational loathing as the semicolon. This aversion may have begun with Hemingway who advised writers to remove the colon and semicolon keys from their typewriter keyboards. Kurt Vonnegut went further: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. [Offensive remark expunged]. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Lynn Truss (Eats, Shoots, and Leaves) says the much-maligned semicolon was first used in 1494 by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius, who decided it was a great way to join related thoughts without introducing a new sentence. The logic escapes me.
Semicolons join two closely related independent clauses (i.e. complete sentences) without the use of a linking word. A semicolon is stronger than a comma but not quite as definite as a period. If you substitute a comma for a semicolon, you’ve created the equally abhorrent comma splice. Don’t do that.
The Contentious Comma
Everyone loves commas. We just don’t agree on where to use them. Basically, commas are used to introduce, to connect, and to separate. As for specifics, some insist on four rules, others five, and still others eight. If you want all eight rules, click here. For the rest of us, the Golden Rule of Commas says to use a comma every time you would take a breath.
The contention exists over the serial comma, also known as the Oxford Comma—the comma used before “and” in a series of three or more items. Opponents have called it “silly, unnecessary and immoral” (Greg Weatherford, LinkedIn, September 22, 2019). Proponents say they would literally die defending the Oxford comma, pointing out that its use avoids potentially catastrophic misunderstanding. Here are three actual examples:
- “I dedicate this book to my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”
- “Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
- “Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector.”
And we all know commas save lives: “Let’s eat Grandma.”
The Essential Em Dash
The em dash (not to be confused with the en dash or the plain old hyphen) is a useful little tool that can function like a comma, a colon, or a parenthesis. The em dash introduces a clause (not a complete sentence) that explains or expands upon something that precedes it. A fellow em-dash lover describes it as a bridge, emphasizing whatever comes after it, “like the pause before a punch line” (Peter Rubin, Creators Hub, Nov 13, 2020).
I love the em dash—too much. Overuse can make your writing sound like a 17th-century broadside, so I eliminate as many as I can in revision. Kill your darlings.
You can create an em dash with two hyphens, but why do that when your computer can do it for you? Microsoft Word will take care of everything—isn’t that handy?
The Plain Old Period:
The ubiquitous period ends all sentences except questions and exclamations. The only thing left to say is this: please STOP putting two spaces after a period. The practice harkens back to the days of typewriters when double spacing made it easier to see the beginning of a new sentence. With today’s computers and proportionally spaced fonts, two spaces are no longer needed. Every major style guide says so. Period.
And Now Back to the Rolling Stop
Obviously, I haven’t plumbed the murky depths of punctuation. For one thing, I’ve left out some perfectly respectable punctuation marks—apostrophes, parentheses, brackets, the en dash, the hyphen. But I’ll end with this: Good writing reflects the way people actually speak. We take a breath every once in a while. Commas indicate a very short pause; em dashes indicate a longer pause; periods signal a full stop. Using the driving metaphor:
Comma—You tap the brakes to slow down a bit.
Em Dash—You come to a rolling stop so you can navigate a turn.
Period—You come to a full and complete stop.
Styles of writing and punctuation can change. In 1962, advertising executive Martin Speckter tried to introduce the interrobang (‽ or ?! or !?), arguing that it would allow copywriters to add rhetorical meaning to their copy. So far the interrobang hasn’t merited its own key on the keyboard. Instead, we have emojis, which tell readers of texts and emails how to interpret the words. Are emojis the punctuation marks of the future? 🤔
What do you think about semicolons? The Oxford comma? Emojis?