James Joyce avoided even the most basic of punctuation marks, Gertrude Stein couldn’t stand the question mark and the misuse of apostrophes has sent even the most laidback grammar pedant into hysterics. No matter what you think of punctuation, it is all around us. So, what are the most important marks?
- Full stop. This one has to be at the top of the list. Where would we be without knowing where one sentence ends and another begins? Even Cormac McCarthy who famously shuns the more fussy ‘little marks’ on the page believes you can’t do without the full stop.
- Comma. We probably all think we know our way around the humble comma but it can have a huge impact on meaning and sense. The famous panda who eats shoots and leaves (or eats, shoots and leaves?) is a well-known example. There is also a comma in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution that may well change the meaning. Good to know the comma doesn’t impact anything important, right!?
- Question mark. A mark that is used to indicate a question, which is placed at the end of a direct question – what could be more simple than that? But watch out: some questions are not phrased directly (starting with what/who/when/where/why) and rhetorical questions also need a question mark at the end. Betteridge’s law of headlines – ‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no’ – suggests that the journalistic question mark can be a way to sniff out, in Ian Betteridge’s words, ‘a story that is probably bullshit’.
- Exclamation mark. Maybe the most overused punctuation mark, or it certainly is in any message you get from my brother. If a text doesn’t have at least two exclamation marks at the end of it I worry that he’s ill. Children are taught to use them in the correct context of (surprisingly) exclaiming something but when do they switch to using them in any and all instances? That’s anyone’s guess!!!
- Semicolon. Kurt Vonnegut never used them; Paul Robinson describes them as ‘hateful’; and George Orwell found them ugly. The semicolon is second only to the ‘Oxford comma’ for provoking an emotive reaction. Cecelia Watson, in her recently published Semicolon, assures that this mark can enrich your writing – and even change your life. If you’re stuck on how to use them correctly, this is a great article that explains it in a way that even I can understand.
- Apostrophe. We’ve all seen the examples online but that doesn’t stop us from looking twice and wondering whether there should be an apostrophe in that word or not. Alas, the Apostrophe Protection Society is no more, so it is up to all of us to ensure we never lose this important punctuation mark.
- Hyphen. There’s no need to get your knickers in a twist over hyphenation: the humble hyphen is used to join two words together so they’re acting as a compound. But when exactly to use them has been the subject of many grammatical debates, reams of editorial style guides and heated discussions among proofreading teams. According to some, hyphens are dying out and this is mainly thought to be due to the English of the ‘Internet Age’ in which hyphens have fallen out of favour.
Speech marks – Cormac McCarthy might not be a fan but almost everyone else loves a speech mark.
Slash – now with internet urls using slashes in almost every single address, if they got rid of this one we would be up the proverbial creek!
Colon – when introducing words, phrases or lists the colon is unparalleled.
Do you think differently? Let us know if we’ve missed off the mark you think deserves a place on our list.