Punctuation Pariahs

Punctuation Pariahs

This is going to be a gripe fest. Pull up a brewski and pop open a comfortable chair and settle in for it. Some things just have to be said.

Let’s start with my biggest gripe. Know what it is? You guessed it. Exclamation points. Bangs. Screamers. Shriekers. ! ! ! ! ! And lots of other names, some of which are not for utterance in polite company (we can, once more, thank the Brits for those).

If I had to pick one punctuation pariah, the exclamation point would be it. In scripts, like play scripts and film scripts, they are absolutely verboten. They are not just the mark of surprise, they are the mark of the amateur. And tolerance for bangs in prose, such as in novels, is almost as sparse.

Writers have had lots of things to say about exclamation points over the years.   F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” And Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Writing is, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” All well and good, but in practice Elmore used 49 bangs per 100,000 words and Fitzgerald laughed at this own joke 356 times per 100,000 words. Neither even comes close to James Joyce, though, who slipped 1,105 of the little buggers into 100,000 words. That would be a bang for every 90 and a half words. There is special irony in that last factoid since I have it from an inside source that I was Joyce in a previous life. Of course, so were 89.6% of Jesuit high school graduates, but who’s counting?

Back to the bangs. I haven’t counted how many exclamation points I use in my prose, but I’d guess it’s more than two or three, though fewer than 49, per 100,000 words. I think long and hard before I’ll stick one in. I have this feeling that the action and the dialogue should convey to the reader whether there is the kind of urgency a bang would convey. And if they do, why clutter up things with an exclamation point and treat the reader like a moron? This falls into the same category as why I don’t like to give a lot of detail about characters’ appearance. Let readers use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Now there are times when it sounds stupid not to include an exclamation point: “Hell, yes!” Sometimes they just make sense. But consider how exclamation points can change the meaning of things. “Get out. Just get out,” shouldn’t have one if one intends to convey somberness. But the sense of the same words changes here: “Get out! Just get out!” See the difference, and how bangs change the sense and urgency of the same words?

I’ve been finding that my crusade to purge all needless bangs from my writing has been carrying over to my personal correspondence, and I’m finding that I’m carrying things a bit too far there. Informal writing is different from formal writing, and exclamation points have a place in informal writing, as long as one does not overdo it. “Oh, wow!” merits a bang, for sure. “I had a cold last week!” (I didn’t) probably doesn’t.

So why am I on this anti-bang crusade? It’s because I’ve seen way too many exclamation points in some things I’ve read recently. For instance, while I generally liked the book, one of the more annoying things (if not the only one) about Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma was her insistence on excessive use of exclamation points. I found myself wondering what the editors were thinking to allow so many bangs, most of which were superfluous. The dialogue could have carried the sense perfectly well without them. Actually, better, since I would not have been so distracted by the punctuation and not resentful of being treated like a dolt. The subject matter of the book, which I’m planning a review of sometime soon, is such to get most readers’ attention all by itself. No exclamation marks needed.

Okay, that’s my biggest punctuation gripe. What’s number two? Thought you’d never ask. In contrast to the assertive bang, it’s the regressive semi-colon. The ; Yup. So why such angst over the semi-colon? Because, in my view, the semi-colon is practically an anachronism. Not quite, but slouching in that direction. My position – which I repeatedly drilled into my writing students’ heads in an effort to set them on the right path from the outset – is that if there is a pause greater than a comma would indicate, then use a period. Point. Full stop. I think it punches up the writing and holds the reader’s attention instead of losing it in the marshmallow of the semi-colon.

No, not everyone is going to agree with me. My advice to them: Get over it (notice use of the colon, which still has a purpose). Banish semi-colons and substitute periods for them and your writing will be the better for it.

Now, like the exclamation point, there still are some uses for a semi-colon. I find them useful when making a list, to divide one item on the list from the next. Like this: “For this project you will need: 15 commas; 42 periods; a couple exclamation points; and no semi-colons.” Okay, there are probably better examples than that, but you get the point. Or the semi-colon.

The one thing you absolutely don’t want to do is wind up with a run-on sentence because you’re avoiding semi-colons. A run-on occurs when you have two independent clauses, each of which could stand on its own as a sentence, that get stuck together without any appropriate punctuation. Here is an example: “It’s snowing heavily out we can’t possibly make it home tonight.” If you write run-ons like that, you shouldn’t make it home tonight and would be advised to wander off into a snow drift (only kidding! You can be taught!) That run-on sentence can be corrected with a semi-colon: “It’s snowing heavily out; we can’t possibly make it home tonight.” But to me, that’s mealy-mouthed. I prefer: “It’s snowing heavily out. We can’t possibly make it home tonight.” Or better still: “It’s so warm. Let’s go get some Mai Tais and enjoy the sunset.”

My next gripe really isn’t about a punctuation mark at all, though a lot of people seem to use it as a form of punctuation: lol. No, I’m not telling you I’m making a funny. It’s use of those three letters, lol, in one’s writing. And yes, I’m including informal writing here, which is where it usually crops up. If you’re saying something funny, then your words should convey the humor, shouldn’t they? If you have to tell readers they should laugh, either you’re not being very funny, or you consider your correspondent to be an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed out without supervision. If something comes across as a bit ambivalent, where the correspondent might wonder if you’re being serious or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with clarifying things, like doing what I did above and saying you’re just kidding. Or whatever it is you’re doing. I hate to say it, but even an emoji would be preferable to using lol. Of course, half the time emojis come across at the other end as semi-colons and something else, so that might not work.

Anyway, those are my gripes for now. Don’t worry, there will be more. But these are my biggies in the realm of punctuation. Do you have any punctuation pariahs of your own? Or maybe you think these things are fine! So go ahead; tell me what you think! Lol!

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2 thoughts on “Punctuation Pariahs

  1. And what about the excessive use of emoji signs – nothing annoys me more than sending a serious thank you email to somebody quite high up in the hierarchy and only to receive back a simple smiley emoji. Grrrrrrr… Frankly, I’d prefer to receive nothing at all than a small yellow face smiling, winking or pulling its tongue out at me.
    Call me old fashioned but a succession of emojis is not a sentence. Is this the new universal language? The International equivalent to the european Esperanto? I hope not.
    Unless of course, this is just a modern take on Rebuses, the principle of using phonetic images to create a word or phrases.

    But as much as this can be an amusing game to play, it hinders and demeans modern communication and it can be compared to a foreign language if you don’t master the signification of the dancing lady, the peach or the eggplant (ok, I do know what these last 2 mean – but sorry, I still don’t get the dancing lady).

    As for punctuation, it’s a battle between extremes. With those who have simply given up and throw in a few punctuation signs now, those who are just bad at it and yet continue using punctuation, even if their bad placement in a phrase can completely modify the meaning of the said phrase and then there are those who go way over the top with the excessive use of exclamation points (my pet peeve too, even if I must confess having used a few extra exclamation points myself on some occasions). I suppose that systematically putting lots of exclamation points at the end of a sentence is the equivalent to making a big thing out of nothing and adding importance to something that was not required. Why not just type in capital letters (aka screaming/shouting)? Because this is just as bad as adding 5 exclamation points when one if not none were suffice.

    As for semi-colons, this has always been one of my personal issues, never quite knowing where and when to use them and lacking the knowledge of the clear and simple rule on their use. Or maybe I’ll just follow your advice and give them up and use periods instead.

    In addition to punctuation peeves, my other one is choice of writing font. The other day, I received an email with an attached document from my human ressources department, document that was meant to be sent to apprenticeship candidates. And the whole 2 page form to fill in was written in the hated COMIC SANS MS. I just couldn’t let this pass and immediately sent an email response back in my most diplomatic terms, explaining what the problem was and why this was an issue, hinting to the person that maybe she didn’t know the history of this font and how using it on a document to be sent outside the company didn’t shine a good light on our professionalism, that from my own experience, the form of a document was just as important as it’s content. And luckily she took my critique well and started making sure all her other letters or forms were not in this font.
    So, imagine receiving a message using this font, with excessive use of exclamation points, bad use of punctuation and signing off with a smiling emoji…
    Alas, in hyperspace, no one would hear me screaming!

  2. Oh, I do feel your pain and hear your digital screams. And I well recall your disgust at the use of Comic Sans. No arguments there. Somehow there are people who seem to think it’s an acceptable typeface for serious communication, possibly due to its excessive use at one time. I’m glad to hear you were able to diplomatically whack your colleague up the side of the head to dissuade her from its further use.

    I plead no contest on the use of emojis. Most of the time I can’t even figure out how to insert them so don’t try. And if I ever do use them, such as on excessively rare occasions to liven up a chat, I’ll choose something ridiculous and provocative like a devil or dangling tongue, which come closer to my personality and intent than a smiling face. And if people in your hierarchy are sending you emojis as replies to your memos, either you need a different hierarchy or to write memos that demand a more serious response.

    I hope you do take the guidance on reducing, if not altogether eliminating, semi-colons from your writing. It’s the way to go (see how the period there emphasizes the point being made?)

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