by Trista Cornelius
September 24th was National Punctuation Day, the ninth annual celebration of punctuation. As the official website explained, part of the mission is to remind America “that a semicolon is not a surgical procedure.”
The first years I heard about National Punctuation Day, I shrugged it off like all the other National Days of … as in National Candied Orange Peel Day or National Mustard Day. (No joke. May 4 and August 5, respectively.)
This year, however, when a friend posted the announcement on her Facebook page and asked how people planned to celebrate, I paused. Understanding punctuation felt the same as learning to like vegetables: necessary but not pleasant. I love vegetables now, so why not celebrate punctuation? Why not appreciate the function of what had formerly been relegated to school quizzes and red marks on essays?
According to the National Punctuation Day website, there are thirteen punctuation marks to celebrate. Without looking them up, can you list them all?
There’s the obvious: period, exclamation point, and question mark. The site harkens back to E.B. White’s writing tips and warns not to over use the exclamation point. (I suppose my frequent three-in-a-row exclamation points in text messages is a prime example of what happens due to overuse. One is not enough, three becomes a habit.)
Next, there’s the not-quite-as-obvious-until-you-think-about it: comma, quotation mark, and apostrophe. (The apostrophe, however, manages to suffer from both underuse and misuse as in The girls plaid dresses fluttered in the wind as we watched the balloon’s float away.) The previous sentence illustrates another punctuation mark: parentheses.
Slightly less obvious unless you noticed the hint in the last paragraph would be the hyphen and the dash. And, if you’ve run out of ideas, well, uh … there’s always the ellipsis to convey halting speech or omitted words.
There’s also the semicolon and the colon, which are frequently treated as interchangeable when they mean different things. A semicolon can be used where a period would be used – to delineate and connect two complete sentences: The girls watched the balloons float away; their dresses fluttered in the wind. You may also see semicolons in a list if the listed items are long and/or include commas.
The colon, however, introduces that long list, definition, or quotation. It can also have another function: emphasis.
Finally, the punctuation mark you may not have considered, and I certainly thought of them more as decoration or style: brackets. (Which, now that I think about it [I really should have noticed sooner], allow complex asides within asides.)
If you’re with me so far, here’s your creative challenge: National Punctuation Day organizers challenged punctuation fans to a writing contest. Since submissions were due September 30th, we’ll do our own challenge here – complete with no prizes, but a chance to exercise your brain matter.
Use all thirteen punctuation marks listed below (more if any were over looked [Is the tilde a punctuation mark?]) in two-to-three “effective” sentences … if you dare. Of course, I bet you’d rather scrub your kitchen – with a Q-tip – than try this exercise; I understand because writing this paragraph has been: aggravating!!!
- quotation marks
- question mark
- exclamation point
This is the fourth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!