The Writer Eats Shoots and Leaves: Brief Thoughts on All 14 Punctuation Marks

4 min read

Collage of various punctuation marks

National Punctuation Day is upon us. Which might not be a big deal for you, but for us writers, it’s yearly validation that our work is confusing, ambiguous, and utterly crucial to keeping society operational.

Don’t believe me? Just check out the case of this missing serial comma resulting in a Maine dairy company making a $5 million mistake. That’s one expensive punctuation mark.

Given the holiday, we thought it might be fun to pass judgment on the current state of the 14 official punctuation marks—and maybe think about which ones deserve relegation to the world of pseudo punctuation (where the interrobang is king).

Exclamation point. Times are weird for exclamation points. They used to mean loud or angry. Now, at least with informal communication, they’re the punctuational equivalent of adding a smile emoji to the end of your sentence. “You’re welcome.” seems stuffy but “You’re welcome!” is sincere and friendly. It’s confusing!

Colon. Colons are among the most versatile tools in all of punctuation, but they’re underused for adding drama. For example, compare “I absolutely must tell you I love you.” with “I absolutely must tell you: I love you.” Those two little dots make all the difference.

Comma. Serial commas are correct. Let’s not argue. Exhibit A: “I went to the park with my dogs, grandma and grandpa.” Those are probably some weird-looking dogs.

Semicolon. The semicolon continues to be criminally underrated. Novice writers usually don’t understand how they work and some pros find them pretentious. But semicolons are an elegant way to transition from one thought to another; using them skillfully can be the sign of a true wordsmith.

Period. It’s not fun. It’s not flashy. But the period serves a distinct and uncompromising purpose. While ubiquitous, it’s often underused by those who seek to dazzle with em dashes and semicolons. Respect the period.

Hyphen. Oh the hyphen, you rascal. No one piece of punctuation has caused more debate in our office. The best thing to remember about hyphens is that while there are hard-and-fast rules, there are also situations with no right answer. It’s all about context and clarity. Which is hard for us perfectionist writers to accept.

Dash. For our purposes we’ll be talking about em dashes—an oft abused tool in professional copywriting. Yes, they’re great for writing sophisticated, multi-thought sentences. But they’re also a crutch that can make writing overcomplicated and cumbersome. And why are you putting spaces on either side? Why?

Question mark. Possibly invented by Dr. Evil’s father, the question mark is perhaps the least divisive of all 14 punctuation marks. Its use remains unquestionable—even if its origins aren’t.

Quotation mark. I’m always surprised how many professional writers don’t know you only use closing quotation marks at the end of someone speaking (i.e. not at the end of every paragraph). Please, writers, stop messing this up. Oh, and one more thing: If you’re quoting someone in a headline, use single quotes. The more you know.

Apostrophe. Is it Indianapolis’ or Indianapolis’s? It’s the second one. Always. No debate.

Brace. It turns out braces are better for straightening teeth than being useful punctuation marks. They can be used in writing to denote a list, but this typically only applies to music chords or sets of numbers. I never use ‘em. Probably never will.

Bracket. In terms of least-useful punctuation marks, brackets are a close second only to braces. In most cases, parentheses are a better choice. Brackets can be used to denote parentheses within parentheses, but seriously, unless you’re writing the sequel to Inception, find a way to express yourself more clearly.

Parenthesis. Parentheses are often used and abused by unseasoned writers much like the em dash. Just remember: You might not be using them correctly if you can’t replace them with commas. (You can also use a parenthetical to add a supplementary/introspective thought.)

Ellipsis. I’ll be the first to admit, I overuse the ellipsis mark. Like…a lot. But I love the tension and personality a well-placed ellipsis can bring. It adds weight to whatever you’re trying to say—as long as you don’t get carried away. Or else…your copy…will read…like a Steven Seagal movie trailer.

Are you a punctuation nerd? If so, check back on our blog soon (dear commarade) to learn more about what we’re cooking up.


Editor’s note: The above alluded-to project is live. Learn about the Commanist Party.