In more than a quarter-century of being a journalist, I have discovered a basic truth about words: People love them. They love their own words; they love the words of others. Sometimes they just love words for words’ sake. Say “lavender” or “nonsensical” or “sarcophagus” or even “shrubbery” out loud and see if you don’t savor the feel of those syllables in your mouth.
What I’ve also learned, however, is that people feel far less affection for the rules necessary to enable us to navigate a world full of those lovely words.
People have a love/hate relationship with punctuation.
Boy, do they ever.
Almost no one contests the importance of periods. Tiny but mighty, they signal the end of a thought. “Here you go,” they say. “This is all we’ve got.” It’s sheer magnificent finality.
Few can question the validity of quotation marks. Dialogue is vital to good writing, and those little quotie-pies help us keep straight who is saying what.
The comma is another essential piece of punctuation: What else can turn “Let’s eat Grandma!” into “Let’s eat, Grandma!” with such ease?
But when it comes to the rest of the punctuation family, there are several of what my momma would have called “red-headed stepchildren.”
Take the semicolon, for example.
In our office, there’s a wide divergence over the use of the semicolon. I happen to love those little suckers; I use ’em every chance I get.
Our assistant publisher, Peggy Scott, hates them with a white-hot passion she typically reserves only for pickles, while our associate editor, Peggy Bess, finds them useful occasionally but would far rather use dashes – what she calls her “guilty pleasure.”
Our managing editor, Kim Robertson, remarked, “I do like a well-used semicolon,” but went on to say she bears a great deal of malice toward the Oxford comma. (That particular punctuation debate has been raging for years: whether to put a comma after the second-to-last item in a series. “I like to eat apples, oranges, and bananas” versus “I like to eat apples, oranges and bananas.”)
All of us are of one mind, however, when it comes to the apostrophe, a punctuation mark we once heard referred to by a reader as an “air comma.”
Another person made a curve in the air with her hand, saying, “You know, one of those little hangy-down things.”
Whatever it might be called, the apostrophe is useful for showing possession –
“This is Dave’s bike” or “The group’s meeting was rescheduled.” It also substitutes for missing letters in contractions like can’t, would’ve, mustn’t and even ain’t.
What it’s not good at, however, is making things plural. And that’s where we see most of its misuse – when folks get too overenthusiastic and start sticking them in willy-nilly.
I once saw a sign along the road proclaiming the sale of “fresh apple’s.” And we all cringe at yard signs that proclaim this house belongs to “The Marlow’s.”
The Marlows are a lovely local family; Marlow’s Tavern is a nice brewpub in Orlando (great onion rings, by the way).
But I digress. Back to the semicolon.
A coworker brought to my attention a recent article in the New York Times in praise of the semicolon, in which author Lauren Oyler said it’s a piece of punctuation that truly delivers on its promise.
“It’s a period on top of a comma, and it works like both a period and a comma,” she writes. “And there are very few opportunities in life to have it both ways; semicolons are the rare instance in which you can.”
She points out that the semicolon conveys a special message about the two phrases it connects.
“It asserts a link where the reader might not necessarily see one, while establishing the fragility of that link at the same time,” she writes. “The world is not accurately described through sets of declarations.”
I feel vindicated.
But the whole topic points to a problem we increasingly face in our interpersonal communications: Conveying tone.
In a face-to-face conversation, we laugh, we furrow our brows, we chuckle softly and scratch our heads and widen our eyes and do a million other things that augment the actual words we use. How do we convey those same subtle nuances through a mask or over an online or social media connection?
Punctuation is a way to add a third dimension to our writing at a time when we are all being forced to live largely in a two-dimensional world.
These days, communication is terribly fragile – you can’t see a headshake, a shrug, a raised eyebrow.
Punctuation can’t make up for the lack of those things, but it can help add a little fullness back into our conversations. It helps set tone, provide warmth, expand the message in ways that we have on hand in face-to-face conversations but lose when relegated to only fingertips on a keyboard.
So I sing the praise of punctuation, all the different kinds, each to its own purpose.
I will steadfastly continue to use it in text messages, believing that Where in the heck ARE you guys, anyway?? conveys my exasperation better than Where r u.
Call me old school, but I want all those lovely words to make the most sense possible. If I have to use a semicolon to make that happen, so be it; I’m perfectly OK with it.