On Punctuation

I tend to speak emphatically — I gesticulate, enunciate, emphasize; I whisper, accelerate, pause; I lean in, lean out, shout. These are as easy to come by as living.

But writing can tend towards the deadpan. Which is one reason I like punctuation so much — it’s the emphatic and the gestural within language. Of course, punctuation is not the only means of emphasis and gesture. Word choice, rhythm, syntax: these are quite literally what make prose pop and move. Still, the keen use of punctuation can make the deadpan sing.

Here are just some of the wonders of punctuation:

The space: Well, this may be the most used but most overlooked piece of punctuation. The space helps define a word — otherwisethingscangetquitejumbled. Of course, not using the space can be powerful, forging an allatonce effect. Within the space, hide secret rhythms.

The comma: A momentary break in continuity, like a crack in the skateboarder’s sidewalk. A tempering of breath and sense.

The period: Can go staccato or be the respite at the end of a breathy idea. Use of the full stop is trickier than it seems.

The indentation: Someplace to rest, as if dangling one’s feet over a cliff before forging ahead.

The colon: The pull up headlights: the punchline.

The semi-colon: A period and a comma: how fantastic is that? Stopping and not stopping at the same time.

The em dash: One of the more gestural marks, as if putting up one’s hands and asking the reader to follow a tangent — but only for a moment.

Parentheses: The more discrete and discreet aside, a visible whisper, a qualification, a tangent, a drift. As language wants so much to be linear, the ability to stop and articulate is more than a luxury: it’s a necessity.

The ellipsis: The mark of a lack, of the invisible, the declaration that there is a secret without declaring the secret…the ability to skip over what we know: at once a shared assumption and a claim to privacy.

The exclamation point: Turns any phrase into an emphatic: Just watch! I find the exclamation point quite useful in virtual communication — texts and brief emails: they tell my reader that the seeming solemnity of my pixellated “thanks” is, in fact, a hearty, “thanks!”

The quotation mark: A crane that lets you lift language from elsewhere and drop it in your writing — an essential tool for the bricoleur.

The question mark: Uproots sense, leaves it open and wondering. Oh, I wish English had the upside down question mark!

Italics: Not sure this counts as punctuation per se but sometimes the words themselves need to careen.

The asterisk: Like a loose hair or dangling fingernail; or a tap on the shoulder; or, rune-like, a symbol that more resides elsewhere. TC mark

image – Horia Varlan


More From Thought Catalog

  • http://michaelynch.com Michael Lynch

    Clever and poetic (and perhaps a necessary reminder for some of us). This is appreciated.

  • http://twitter.com/hereticaneue Heretica Neue

    Thank you for writing this ode to punctuation. It’s comforting to find someone who loves it as much as I do.  (I think parentheses are my favorite!)

  • Anonymous

    Seriously; I have a love affair with the semi-colon. A man who can appreciate that will win my heart.

    • Customconcern

      Beware. The semicolon is like meth. At first it’s just a bit of harmless fun. But then you find yourself using it where you really shouldn’t. Like in emails to your mother. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh


  • Rah!

    “The colon: The pull up headlights: the punchline.”

    The best grammar has to offer fo’ sure. 

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    I’ve been accused of over-punctuating, but I like to think I’m adding in the lulls and natural cadence of speech. What are words without a well-placed pause?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dotQureshi Sohaib Qureshi

    Nice one … (I don’t know why but) I love parenthesis… But during texting and typing i use … A LOT!

  • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

    you sure love your colons, don’t you?

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I was waiting for someone to notice.  It’s my weakness.  I’m attracted to the abrupt stop befor delivering my umph. 

  • Sophia

    I looooved this. 
    Thank you for appreciating the English language to the extent that I do.
    This was poetic and lovely and just fantastic.
    Also, I agree with another commenter: If a man can correctly use a semi-colon, he has my heart.

  • Grammar Fanatic

    This is the best explanation of punctuation, ever. How can anyone get confused? Proper punctuation use is a lost art. But this poetic reflection reassures my hopes for the art in language. I think I’m in love with you…but then again I am willing to fall in love with anyone with a skill for writing, so you may not be the only one. (Okay, I’m done)

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I will take whatever love I can get — not picky like that. And if you want to share said love, I can and will only encourage it. And I thank you for it all. 

  • Erin

    No love for the apostrophe? The apostrophe marks possession AND contraction — what could be sexier than that? It lets you denote ownership of actions and things on the one hand, and on the other, it lets you know when two words have meshed. It’s a powerful piece of punctuation, but it’s too often abused, misapplied or overlooked entirely — as it was in this post. Apostrophe REPRESENT!

    • Daniel Coffeen

      A sin, no doubt. The apostrophe — small but mighty, potent even — slipped from my radar.  Will it ever forgive me?


    That was great.

  • Anonymous

    Loved this! Exclamation point!

  • http://www.facebook.com/earthtonichole EarthToNichole

    No ampersand…?

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I love the ampersand — what’s not to love? But I’m not sure it’s punctuation per se. Unless we consider all letters a kind of punctuation which is actually kind of interesting.

      • http://www.facebook.com/earthtonichole EarthToNichole

        You’re right. I guess it’s more of a…symbol? I’m going to spend the rest of my day overanalyzing this.

      • Guy

        Apparently, and don’t quote me on this, it used to be a letter in it’s own right. “x, y, z, and per se and.”

  • douchegirl

    I loved this. My friends always make fun of me for using correct grammar, spelling and punctuation when I text them, but now I think I’ll just direct them to this article. 

  • Guy

    Prose doesn’t “quite literally . . . move” unless I pick up my book to walk to the kitchen.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      You’re reading the wrong books.

      • Missa

        He needs to read some Jasper Fforde.

blog comments powered by Disqus