The Punctuation Follies

To distract herself from the onslaught of grading, Maria Shine Stewart contemplates commas, dashes and lesser-known marks.

December 20, 2010

It’s that time of year -- when I can barely force myself to read another student paper. Holiday garlands dazzle and lights blink on and off at the corner of my eye as I drag myself to classes. Some people garner the spirit and energy to wear colorful scarves and festive jewelry while I favor drab, jumbo sweaters and a slush-colored coat. Some even pencil in social events while I can barely muster the energy to take a nap and momentarily forget the flurry of grading that awaits me. Such a strategy of deferment might work for barely an hour -- at which point I will wake up and resume my worrying.

It is as if the entire world reflects one shimmering exclamation point, but the top line (of mine) has fallen off.

And yes, it’s that time of year when I will procrastinate in any way possible, such as meditating on the role of punctuation in society (the type of big picture question we relish in universities) instead of attending to pressing matters close at hand. These include the 100+ final papers, some filled with punctuation glitches and glorious ideas, chillin’ -- literally -- on the passenger seat in the car.

In writing this section alone, I have indulged in sundry dashes and hyphens, commas and periods, apostrophes and parentheses, each releasing a spurt of dopamine in my brain as I type. I just might be addicted to writing, but I have never met anyone addicted to grading. Each mark of punctuation tumbles forth, wayward or deliberate.

Yes, I know the punctuation rules, thanks to memorizing a grammar book in the halcyon days of graduate school (pedagogy not yet refined, pre-composition and rhetoric era). We live in enlightened, rushed times. Punctuation rules? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Let the follies begin

Like many adjunct faculty members, I seek ways to intertwine teaching and learning. I rankle at ongoing debates and announcements of studies questioning whether adjuncts “keep up” or even (?) damage the learning of students. I do my part to stage a protest. As “digital literacy” is a buzzword, and I read an article just this past week attacking venerable, authoritarian strategies such as asking for Times Roman 12 pt. type and one-inch margins for student papers, I put myself to the test. No slouch, I know that I should engage with the rich linguistic environment around me.

As much time as punctuation demands from a writing teacher, the world at large seems to get by largely without it. I make a mental note of its absence on street signs and business signs. Even respected institutions have nary a punctuation mark.

I push harder to enhance my visual acuity and insight. I see that a discount store has lost its apostrophe. I wonder if anyone has reported it missing. Was it a casualty of a recent hailstorm? The omission adds to the power of the pun if I read the store’s name backwards. After a long day of teaching, subsisting on coffee and carbohydrates, it can be hard to keep my eyes in focus. Reading backwards feels quite natural, and we all have heard that tired adage that it can be a good way to proofread.

The store’s name is Marcs. The apostrophe’s demise is long overdue; whats mine is yours. Scram.

Money talks

I stop at a drive-thru for more sugar and caffeine to fuel this rant, only to find that the cost of a cookie is posted as $ .45 c. Alas, the cent sign doesn’t even appear on my modern keyboard anymore, perhaps because nothing is that cheap. I strive to decipher the feuding symbols on the sign. If indeed the dollar sign is not extraneous, that means I can get two cookies for under a penny, ten for less than a nickel, and 200 (more than enough for my students in the final week) for just one dollar. That could definitely sweeten the deal as students fill out their course evaluations.

No, wait. If it’s really 45 cents, two cookies times 100 students equals $45. I’d better pass.

(No hugs)

When I even begin to entertain the thought that housecleaning looks preferable to grading, it’s definitely time for winter break. I have grown attached to a cardboard box that brought me desk copies early in the semester proclaiming HANDLE WITH CARE on the outside. Clearly, the printer could have softened this harsh message with parentheses. No frills, though, in the cut-throat world of textbook publishing.

The box, incidentally, is filled with fluffy, white beads that resemble popcorn -- or a stockpile of apostrophes and commas. Note to self: Explore the possibility of edible punctuation as a teaching tool in basic writing class. In the meantime, the disputes between the underscore and italics may rage on even as things remain staidly predictable for brackets. They remain a necessity to stiffly interject what the writer didn’t say but the scholar can interpolate. Or what the humor writer hastily taped [sic] that needs immediate clarification.

And as for those curly, curvy brackets, just call them the Rorschach on your keyboard. Students will only use them by mistake, and no one really knows what they’re for. To me, they resemble the profiles of figure skaters or, perhaps, recent contestants on Dancing with the Stars.

Don’t humor her

My own dance (or orchestrated stumble) with punctuation has a long history. As a continuing education instructor for several years, I gently roused professionals frozen with fear of English with jokes about grammar and punctuation in an effort to make a dry subject come to life and to reassure them that such arcane knowledge was indeed attainable. Among my low-tech teaching tools at the time was a set of poster boards filled with oversized punctuation marks. I crafted them lovingly with standard markers. I once left this set of cards on campus – and they were never returned. I took this as confirmation that their value, even brilliance, as unique works of art may be cherished for future generations. Unless, of course, they ended up in a landfill.

At one seminar for mental health professionals, I reviewed the oft-misused semicolon as a troubled entity. It might be thought of as a period with an inferiority complex or a comma with delusions of grandeur. I spoke their language; they spoke mine.

And turning the clock back further (keeping with the spirit of the season), as a youngster I once spent the better part of a day typing slashes and parens on a manual typewriter, creating what I thought was a stunning holiday card. My mother looked at it wearily and said: “Someone got up at 6 a.m. today and thought of that already.”

Moral: Get up earlier before your punctuation tricks are stolen.

Now u Turn

This just in: the planets are now properly aligned to usher in the brave new world of texting. This has profound implication for the future of punctuation, perhaps even heralding its oblivion. How do I know? In two student papers this term (double the number of last year at this time), the word “u” was boldly uttered, perfect in its insignificance … “u” in its aching loneliness, describing precisely the state of my soul. It is like an infant’s gaping mouth, with no pacifier. A scholar of E.E. Cummings at least through my master’s, whose little “i” was admittedly ahead of its time, I now can ponder the ungainly second person.

Thinking of this, I note while driving that a very important sign to my right could be easily corrupted with a scrawled in “w,” thus becoming: “Now U Turn” -- and thus creating chaos. I am not the person to perform such a prank; I am at times hesitant to even breathe on student papers (lest my presence squelch a genius), let alone mark on them.

To sticklers who might point out that I have digressed from my thesis on punctuation follies, I concur. However, I compare punctuation marks with traffic signals in some classes, a sentiment echoed by Pico Iyer in his classic, “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”

Close enough. And let’s just hope it never gets so far that emoticons slither their way onto traffic signs.

Dash -- the untold story -- and other seasonal follies

Mr. Willard, my ninth-grade English teacher, is responsible for turning me on to the dash at an impressionable age. Whereas another teacher would have just x-ed them out, he fostered my lifelong habit. It’s a staple of my writing, in case anyone is still with me now. In Mr. Willard’s honor, do use the dash liberally if you do take the pains to send cards.

Thinking of you –

has that beautiful openness to suggest that the relationship, however superficial, may mature in the future.

As busy teachers transition from grading to greeting, some might also consider the possibilities of the asterisk, well-established as a snowflake look-alike. Check the font size that works best; to liven up holiday greetings, sprinkle them liberally. Each one is the same if you type, so protest against the tyranny of individuality while saving time and expense on cards. ***Winter greetings.***

From our house to yours…

As a writer and teacher, I know that I should not play favorites among punctuation marks; the others may rebel. But – truth be told – the ellipsis is my favorite. Three little dots . . . and the reader must do all the work. That’s masterful. Turn them sidewise, and you have the beginning of a little snowman, one that will never melt. Use it to save time. Or for that matter, employ the colon: it’s like a little pair of eyes, turned sidewise. Either mark can be appropriate if you are uncertain of someone’s faith tradition and do not want to err. Happy: Or, alternatively, Merry . . . Let the recipient decide.

If I could give each reader a small gift, it would be a little box, neatly wrapped, with 100 exclamation points inside. Remember, that is your entire allotment for a lifetime. Use them sparingly. In one of the last student presentations of the semester, I learned that Hemingway reportedly compared the exclamation point with laughing at your own jokes. Don’t do that. And don’t waste sixteen on the announcement for the faculty potluck or party. You’ll only have 84 left!


Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.


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