I await this Internet quiz, which is bound to be more instructive than Christian theologian or Euroweenie. Colby Cosh admits to weaknesses for the em-dash and the semicolon. This is small-time. The semicolon is obsolescent, and its users evince a harmless nostalgia for those glorious days when which was which and that was that and shall and will kept to their proper place.

The em-dash denotes an inability to stick to the point, but far less pathologically than the parenthesis, which I favor. Perhaps the most distinguished contemporary exponent of parentheses is Renata Adler, half of whose really rather good book on the Sharon and Westmoreland libel trials, Reckless Disregard, is between them. (It’s hard to decide which half is better, the inside or the outside. Overuse of parentheses often gives rise to this difficulty.)

The colon is favored by poets, and poetasters, who are obsessed with how their deathless prose sounds when read out loud, like that’s going to happen any time soon. Would-be epigrammatists like it too. Few can write something as good as “Man proposes: God disposes”: many can punctuate it. Wallace Stevens was addicted to the colon. So was Niezsche. I will justify my own addiction to the colon — and I’ve caught myself using as many as three in a single sentence — when I learn to write like Wallace Stevens or Nietzsche.

Question marks, oddly, signify the quarrelsome. Questions in prose are nearly always rhetorical, and writers who employ them are affecting the manner of the high school debater in cross-examination. The truly querulous, like Kierkegaard, rarely use question marks. (Yes, I like question marks too. Yes, I was captain of the debate team in high school.)

The exclamation point used to be for emphasis. But now that teenage girls have hijacked it for use in their diaries — or on their blogs, probably — certain literate devotees, like Mickey Kaus, have begun to use it, half-ironically, to sound less emphatic. A judicious exclamation point gives a sentence some helium, cuts it loose from its moorings. This will be effective until more than three or four people in the world start to do it, when it will grow tiresome.

At least one typographical tic is the exclusive province of the subliterate. Ellipsis Men can often be seen shuffling on the streets, hunched over, muttering to themselves, “Kennedy… radio machines…. Ted Turner Viet Cong… whose job anyway…”

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 3, 2003 @ 12:49 PM | Language

6 Responses to “Which Punctuation Mark Are You?”

  1. 1 1. Allan

    Apostrophes, usually expressed in ellipses but sometimes in em dashes, can evoke a powerful sense of loss or longing, when used properly.


  2. 2 2. Timothy Murphy

    The great Irish poet, Derek Mahon, when he was a student with Heaney and Longley, confided to them that his great poetic ambition was to have an em-dash, followed by a colon, within parentheses.


  3. 3 3. Michael Krantz

    Let’s just hope your vicious and unfair attack on ellipses never makes its way back to Mr. Wolfe…


  4. 4 4. Alexis

    In addition to the quarrelsome, question marks are also often used by the ambivalent and faint-hearted. Don’t you think so?

    And we cannot forget the triple question mark, intended to convey urgency, but effective only in creating annoyance. Right???


  5. 5 5. Aaron's Girlfriend's Father

    Subliterate? My daughter deserves better … damn bloggers … can’t get a job…


  6. 6 6. paperdragon

    One mustn’t forget, of course, the comma, to which I, personally, am addicted which symbolizes a, very slight, reluctance to end a sentence and begin another.


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