Embracing Punctuation

I admit it. I love punctuation. Commas, hyphens, dashes, and semi-colons… I appreciate them all. And I’m sorry to see them vanishing from newspapers, magazines, corporate publications, and websites. The evidence of their disappearance, according to scholar Henry Hitchings, includes “editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.”*

Some say these trends are evidence of social decline. Not I. The English language is vibrant and constantly evolving:  new words are invented, others change their meanings, and some fall into disuse. Punctuation also has its fads and fashions. As punctuation grows scarce, however, written compositions seem to lose potency and can sometimes be misunderstood. With punctuation marks, writers can express themselves more effectively, communicate with clarity, and capture just the right tone. 

Let’s consider the hyphen, which is seriously endangered. Sometimes its disappearance makes sense as it did in the 1990s when “on-line” gave way to “online.” But dehyphenation can have unintended consequences. Although “co-operate” and “co-operative” can easily lose their hyphens, it does not necessarily follow that “cooperative apartment” should be shortened to “coop.” During the 1980s and 1990s, New York City apartment buildings were festooned with signs proclaiming: “COOPS FOR SALE.” I was not the only one who giggled. In recent years, the hyphen has blessedly reappeared and many new signs read “CO-OPS FOR SALE.” 

Well-placed hyphens can reduce ambiguity. For this reason, I prefer “investment-grade high-yield bonds” over “investment grade high yield bonds.” I also believe that in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, the general public might have appreciated the universal adoption of “credit-default swap,” instead of the widely used “credit default swap.” When “credit” and “default” are made into a compound adjective, readers can easily discern that “swap” is the noun. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, uses just such a construction.

The semi-colon, one of my favorite punctuation marks, seems to be almost completely out of fashion. In my experience, a semi-colon can pack a lot of punch. It also reduces monotony. Paraphrasing Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, a semi-colon “suggests a close relationship” between two phrases, which is not inherent in a two-sentence structure, and it can be “more forcible” than the use of a conjunction. “Indeed, this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition.”**

Then there are serial commas. I have a strong affinity for serial commas, but they are generally considered optional. In fact, two of my clients – both large investment firms – differ on the subject. One uses serial commas; the other does not. When asked for my opinion, I usually recommend the selection of a style guide, such as the AP Style Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style, to help encourage consistency across the organization.

What of parentheses? A colleague contends that if you want to say something, you should just come right out and say it. Still, parentheses have their place. I think they efficiently signal that certain information (such as a definition) is connected with, but not essential to, a specific sentence. Plus, they can be used to slip in a witty aside.

So I will keep up the good fight for punctuation – even if, as Henry Hitchings suggests, it is being renounced. I’ll even advocate for a few more punctuation marks. I’ve recently become acquainted with the “point d’ironie,” which was first proposed at the end of the 19th century. Sometimes called a “snark,” this irony mark would flag a statement as rhetorical or sarcastic. It would help make clear one’s intent – to tell a joke, not to offend – especially in this age of electronic communication. What do you think? Whatever your opinion (and I’d certainly love to hear from you), I think we can all agree that sometimes punctuation is just plain fun.

* “Is This the Future of Punctuation” by Henry Hitchings, The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2011.

** The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Third Edition, p. 6.

3 Comments

  1. I also like to use hyphens to reduce ambiguity. I favor semicolons less because they’re hard to use well.

  2. I favor more punctuation as well because it makes communication so much easier. And we could use much more clarity and honest communication in our world today.

  3. If you haven’t seen “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss, do take a look. I actually got some useful guidance on a particularly persnickety issue—amidst many chuckles.

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