DISCLAIMER: This grammar blog is full of practiced opinions. My opinions. I hope that you will agree with me but the only sense in which these might be authorised opinions is that I have authored them.

So

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punctuation … What is it good for?  Let’s start with the comma. You know

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the squiggle that sits on the line. The comma. Looks a bit like yin

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or is it yang? Aye, yon’s the yin. Looks like a tadpole with warped personality. Well, I would like to say, here and now, that that’s my favourite punctuation mark, that is. It makes words look clever. Cleverer. That’s its job. No two ways about it.

Actually, no; no, that’s not its job. The purpose, the real point of punctuation is to echo in writing the rhythms and intonations of the spoken word. Then tidy it up a bit.

There, there, there, don’t fret it. If you’re not sure what kind of squiggle, dash or blob you need there‘s plenty of advice out there there‘s  some really good stuff further down this blog.

EXCLAIMER: Don’t trust any grammar authorities! Sure, take what you need, but always remember that you know best what it is you need to express. Make the language dance to your tune.

The comma is way up there in the top 10 of punctuation marks. Probably top 5. And ‘… what is it good for?’ Well, quite a few things: mainly separating or joining bits of a sentence. You know, clauses, lists, and structural stuff like that.

That last comma was actually an Oxford comma a.k.a. the serial comma. It’s a controversial comma, that one.

I thought I ought to focus on the comma first,  before getting into the wider world of punctuation marks, because it seems to be the squiggle most often chosen to illustrate the arguments of those who bemoan lax punctuation. Fair enough. Here’s a couple of the familiar phrases that are endlessly wheeled out to make the case for the perfect use of a comma (and, obviously, by their example the rest of punctuation is deemed or doomed to be justified).

The cartoon voice bubble, “Let’s eat Grandma!”, often underscored with the assertion ‘Punctuation Saves Lives’, suggests that there, but for a comma, goes Grandma… when she should, in fact, be joining the younger generation for food. Is anyone convinced that this is anything more than a joke? “Let’s eat, Grandma!” is reported speech. The cartoon context is clear. Were this a real life situation the intonation of the speaker would express the intention if, indeed, the circumstances allowed for confusion. The written comma is required by the shrinking convention that words in the vocative case (that is, you, dear sir or madam, the person addressed) should be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. To our eyes a comma indicates a pause, shorter than a full stop but pause nonetheless. However, in the urgent spoken expression of “Let’s eat Grandma!” there is no pause necessary in either version of the statement. True, it’s a neat joke; enough to make the Internet smile but, really, nothing more.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In case you haven’t read the international bestseller by ‘punctuation pedant’ and ‘grammar queen’ Lynne Truss, here is another version of the cut-down shaggy dog story that gives rise to the title of her book (which she subtitles ‘the zero tolerance approach to punctuation’):

“So, this panda – he’s called Blam Blam coz they call pandas things like that, could have been Wang Wang, I dunno, doesn’t matter. Anyway this panda goes into the coffee franchise in a bookshop. Chomps on a muffin for a bit as he noses through a clever-looking book he picked up on his way though. After a while the panda pulls out a gun and fires it into the air.

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“Then the pistol packing panda walks out. Bits of ceiling like biscotti crumbs are all over the coffee shop.

“Anyway – cut a long story short ­– the police catch Blam Blam  and, next thing, this panda’s up in court to answer for his crime. “Why did you do it?” the prosecutor demands, to which the panda replies, “It’s in my nature,” and he shows the judge the book he was reading at the time of the incident. It’s an erratically punctuated reference volume, bookmarked at the definition of panda: noun, a characteristically black and white, bear-like herbivore that eats, shoots and leaves.”

Geddit? It’s the way I tell ’em (Trust me, Truss’s version is way better). But if an answer to the headline question ‘punctuation … what is it good for?’ can be found anywhere then surely Eats, Shoots and Leaves has the biblical authority of a bestseller. It is the bestselling punctuation guide of recent times. So, what have we learnt? Punctuation is good because … if you don’t punctuate carefully then an endangered species will shoot up a book shop. Oh, and never trust the contents of a book. Another neat joke; enough to make a publisher smile all the way to the bank, but nothing more.

Which brings this to a pretty pass. Having consulted the best Im not sure I am in a position to answer the question ‘… what is it good for?’

Punctuation, as it stands in the identity parade below, is more than just the usual suspects. There’re loads of the other symbols, twiddles and fly-spots that puncture text. You really will have to decide for yourself if punctuation (and which punctuation) has a use in whatever you might be writing. Best I can offer here is a brief guide to the usual and conventional use of a range of punctuation marks. There is no significance in the order of appearance other than, perhaps, some insight into this writer’s mind as this is mainly the order in which they occur to me.


This is a comma.

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A small speed bump intended to control the flow of word traffic in a sentence. It may separate clauses, as is the case here, adjectives, names (of those being addressed), numbers, and items in lists, as is also the case here. Without commas that last sentence would have been practically impossible to read, wouldn’t it?

In US slang the word ‘comma’ means money. That’s what it’s good for. Hip-hop recording artist Future’s 2014 song Fuck Up Some Commas is about spending large sums of money.

Let’s fuck up some commas, yeah / Forty thou to a hundred thou / Hundred thou, another hunnid thou / Three hundred thou to five hundred thousand / A million, let’s have a money shower.

The slang derives from the comma required in a 4-figure sum of money (for Future, that is at least $1,000).


This is the semicolon. Or semicolon.

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More than a comma; less than a full stop. The muchmisunderstood semicolon, with or without its hyphen, is used for separating linked clauses that could be standalone sentences; lists, where the items being listed are already commad; and winking smiley faces. 😉  Type a semicolon, followed by a hyphen then a closing round bracket, this is what you get 😉

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-16-37-26 A tattoo of a semicolon carries serious meaning. It symbolises a life not given up to depression; a sentence that the wearer might have brought to a full stop but chose not to.


This is a colon.

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The uses of a colon: to indicate that what follows is a related substantiation, explanation or description; to introduce a list;

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to interrupt the hours, minutes and seconds on the 24hour clockin http:// Internet code, to precede www. addresses (e.g. http://www.projectsemicolon.org); and, in scripted dialogue and some narrative prose, to identify speech.

The colon may be styled with a dash if you feel the need to stand out.


This is a colon dash. It is a colon followed by a dash.

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This flourish of punctuation was apparently known in its day, among typographers of a then (late 1940s) flourishing printing trade, as ‘the dog’s bollocks’. In current British slang the ‘dog’s bollocks’, sometimes euphemistically spayed to ‘the dog’s’, is applied to all things excellent; it is formed on a visual pun on outstanding (it’s obvious if you think about it). The typographers were equally inspired by mischievous comparison with the two-dimensional glyph. They saw a hard to miss image of a cock and balls. It was a man’s world in ‘the print’ in the days before emoticons.


This is a stop,  full stop  a.k.a. a full point.

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If there is one punctuation mark to take notice of it must be the full stop. Of all the specks and spots that litter a page this is the one that says it is time to take a breath, reader. Not to actually stop (that would be foolish) but to pause before rushing headlong into the next set of words. The stop sits on the line at the end of a sentence. And sometimes, depending on taste, you can see them in and at the end of abbreviations etc. N.B. (or NB) there is no need for another point if a sentence finishes with an abbr.

Long long ago, once upon a time, in the pre-email world, telegraphese was the compressed value-for-money form of English used in telegrams STOP This was a period when communication was charged by the word STOP Punctuation had to be spelt out STOP In American English the full stop is known as a ‘period’ STOP In American telegraphese ‘a period’ is ‘STOP’ STOP


These are leader dots.

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For when the roll of written words needs some perforation … three stops in a row. That’s the sign of ellipsis. “When used unbracketed, in reported speech … a pause is denoted,” he noted. However, if a sentence finishes with leader dots it may well offer the promise of more to come … or indicate that the writer (or speaker, as appropriate) ran out of steam … or suggest disappointment … Otherwise, but especially when placed in square brackets, […] shows that some text has been omitted.

Printers might use several ellipses in a line to index a page number or lead to a price.


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This is a question mark a.k.a. query and interrogation point.

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You need to ask? This particular squiggle and dot lurk at the end of a sentence to let you know that what you have just read is a question (or questionable). Which raises some questions. If you know from the syntax or context that a question is being asked what purpose does this punctuation mark serve? On the other hand, we surely can agree that you cannot always tell that what is written is intended as a question? ¿Should we perhaps adopt the inverted Spanish question mark?

Popular expression, concerned as it is to register shades of meaning, makes great demands on punctuation; none more so than the question mark. One question mark is often simply insufficient to register an ironic response, uncertainty or outright disbelief. However, like much extemporary punctuation, multiple question marks (???) and question marks mixed with exclamation marks (?!) are frowned upon in polite society!!?


This is an exclamation mark or exclamation point.

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Its purpose, not surprisingly, is to mark an exclamation; also to indicate an imperative or firm admonishment, or expression of astonishment! Sometimes, as with the question mark, one exclamation mark is often not enough, especially when attempting to be humorous in digital social media.

For me, one of the best things about the punctuation mark is the range of aliases it answers to. Here’s just some to be going on with: bang,  christer, dog’s cock, gasper, screamer, shriekmark, startler and wonderer.

As public signage the ! indicates danger. You have been warned.


This is a hyphen.

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A short and quite extraordinary dash that, when doing its job properly, may be hardly noticed. Subject to house-style rules a hyphen is there to:

– compound words; that is, make two words into one-word

– fix prefixes in place (until they are written as one word)

– fix certain suffixes in place, especially in newly coined compounds; also in awkward constructions such as ‘ball-like’, which would otherwise be spelt with three ells (lll) all in a row, and ‘kitsch-hood’ because ‘kitsch hood’ is something entirely different and ‘kitschhood’ would make even less sense

– join together the written numerals (but not the figures) from twenty-one to ninety-nine

– give direction and sense to compass points: lets go north-north-west as an example

– hold a word together when the line-break on a page makes division inevitable

– create double-, triple- and even quadruple-barrel surnames

– drop a common element in a series (such as ‘barrel’ in the line above)

– indicate st- st- stammering in written speech.


This is an asterisk.

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Not an Asterix*. That would be far too galling. The asterisk is a little guiding star that may point towards a footnote or other significant notation. It is also used, with knowing effect, to replace the guilty contents of a worrisome word: one * per letter or it won’t make f**g sense. Mid-word asterisks are not a particular form of ellipsis, they are decorative censorship.

asterix00* Asterix the Gaul http://www.asterix.com


This is an en rule a.k.a. en dash followed by an em rule a.k.a. em dash.

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An en dash joins and separates as required. An em dash divides and separates. An en is longer than a hyphen and less than an em and it’s all danmed confusing. Either dash is used – – or — – , as here, in place of parentheses, or in place of another punctuation mark – , or : for instance – to show a break in the sentence. And you thought the purpose of punctuation was to make things clearer! The confusion is caused – in part – by an ad hoc merging of English English and American English punctuation styles.

An en dash will generally be used between spaces that separate it from the words, on either side—except when it is employed to show an association between the words it links, e.g. replacing ‘to’ in start and finish dates—whilst an em dash (as you can see) mainly maintains contact. Also where a hyphen might merge two names to double-barreled effect, an en dash can join two names without either losing identity. Lennon–McCartney clearly names the Beatles’ songwriting partnership whereas Lennon-McCartney suggests an entirely different relationship.

An en dash is probably as long as that font’s N is wide. That principal was originally applied to an M too but digital typography has changed things; now, if yours is, say, a 12pt. font then that will likely be the measure of your em dash. A point (pt.) is a standardised type measurement in UK and England—slightly bigger in Europe—coming in at an approximate 0.35mm. which puts the 12pt. em dash at a magnificent, and still approximate, 4.2mm.

It is probable that an em will have a greater impact than an en on the rhythm of the written word.


This is a tilde (pronounced ‘tilda’).

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Kinda correctly, this squiggle is used to suggest approximation, more or less. In popular use it serves as an unconventionally decorative form of dash.

Originally, this typographic twiddle was (and so it remains) a Spanish accent used in words such as señor.


This is an apostrophe.

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Sos this.

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And this.

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And so on. It’s a matter of face.

Primarily used in the expression of possession – but do, please, take care of its placement: there is no ’ in its. It’s also unnecessary when forming plurals. On the other hand, don’t overlook the apostrophe as an essential replacement for the missing letters in a contraction.

Presumed misuse of apostrophes is more vexing to the pedantry of punctilious punctuation than almost any other crime against language.

There’s lots more about apostrophes in Grammar’s Blog of Wordliness’ apostrophication’s.


These are parentheses a.k.a. round brackets.
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Good for keeping things in (digressions, explanations, stuff like that).


These are square brackets.

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More narrowly [sic] academic in use than round brackets. Useful for corrections and comments of that ilk.


These are curly brackets a.k.a. braces.

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Good for doing sums and writing music {and giving text a steampunk vibe}.


These are angle brackets.

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They are more or less mathematical symbols, useful for enclosing computer code.

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Otherwise angle brackets are DIY fixings. Unless you prefer D.I.Y.


These are ‘single quotation marks’.

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And so on and so on. It’s a matter of face.

And these are “double quotation marks”.

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Etc. It’s a matter of font.

Both the single and double forms are a.k.a. inverted commas and, simply, as ‘quotes’.

Their purpose is to enclose ‘quoted matter’. So far so good. However, English English and American English do have marginally differing approaches to the use of quotes. Notably, with regard to what other punctuation, including quote marks, should be used within quote marks. “Direct speech,” quoth the grammarian, “is a particular ‘bone of contention’.”

Air quotes – mimed quotation marks gestured by a speaker – are generally sketched as double inverted commas and, most often, employed “ironically”.

A closing single quote indicates feet and a double shows inches. In old money, 5′ 8″ is the height of my personal achievement.


This is a slash (you may know it as a forward slash) a.k.a. a solidus/oblique and, in old money, the shilling mark.

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It offers a choice: punctuate and/or don’t. Abbreviate, unless it’s n/a. Create fractions. Show line breaks in poetry. Slash it 24/7.  Date it day/month/year. Try to go for a http://* without it.

If you are using more than one solidus then your slashes are solidi.

*HyperText Transfer Protocol colon double solidi. 


This is a backslash, a backward slash a.k.a. a reverse solidus.

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You’ll find it on your QWERTY keyboard if you look. It’s there for writers of computer programs and sciency stuff, and their retronymic requirement is the reason that your common or garden slash is now also called ‘forward slash’.


This is a vertical rule | a vertical line | a vertical bar | an upright rule.

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This unambiguous sign of separation is a precise example of purely specialist punctuation creeping into more general use.

A.k.a. (in technical and mathematical terms) as verti-bar | pipe | vbar | vertical slash | bar.


This is the pilcrow a.k.a. the paragraph mark and blind P.

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It marks the beginning of a new paragraph. That is its purpose. However, most QWERTY-users only see it when a key is mishit.

¶ However, when text is shamelessly displayed with all its formatting revealed it can be a beautiful thing. Beautiful and confusing­ – but never unnecessary.


This is the section sign a.k.a. the double S.

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It is used to refer to a section or – §§ ­– sections of a document. The slightly slightly sinister sounding ‘double S’  or ‘the section sign’ is a stylishly sexy squiggle, just waiting to be used. If an asterisk (*) is too starry to shine a light on a footnote, and if the dagger  (†)  is stuck elsewhere, why not give § a whirl. Or a §wirl.


This is the pointing hand a.k.a. manicule, digit, and printer’s fist.

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Obviously it’s pointing at something. But what? Well, whatever whoever put it there thought was important enough to need pointing at. Obviously, this is seriously unambiguous punctuation, out of fashion perhaps but it pretty much predates most of the rest. Pointing predates printing.

Manicule is Latin for ‘little hand’.


This is the dagger a.k.a. obelus (which is sometimes called an obelisk).

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Used like an asterisk as a reference mark, or as an indication that a named person is deceased. The OED uses  to signify obsolescence.


This is the double dagger a.k.a. the double obelisk.

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Like †, it points to an annotation; unlike , the is not used to suggest that someone is doubly dead. Nor doublecrossed.


This is the hash sign, or, sometimes, simply hash.

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The #1 use of # in conventional punctuation is to introduce a number.

It might also, among other things, denote a musical sharp. Proof-readers understand # as ‘space’. In online use it serves as the ‘hashtag’ and, as such, is used in the tweets of social media to identify a topic: #purposeofpunctuation.

This is a symbol with many names. In the UK we derive it from ‘crosshatch’. Technically, it is an octothorp. In plain-speaking America it is known as the ‘number sign’. When you are attempting to navigate an automated telecoms system, to get through to ‘customer care’ perhaps, try pressing the hash key several times…


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In the world of computing when a hashtag is combined with an exclamation mark it becomes a shebang or hashbang. There are other names for it but other than it’s placed at the beginning of a line of code I have no idea what it may be used for.


This is the ditto mark.

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It duplicates the text that sits above it. Simply made from closing quotation marks which were co-opted as a labour-saver in the typewriter era.


This is the asterism.

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Ah! Terpsichore and titillating Typographix (a friend of a friend  of Asterix & Obelix?) come together as our next unconventional act of punctuation graces the spotlight. Ladeez ’n’ Gennermum, put your hands together for: an asterism. Quite literally, asterism is a star turn: a balancing act of three asterisks, with the combined power to entice attention to an entire section of text; or trip the light fantastic and turn cartwheels on the page.


Therefore & Because:

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Consider therefore a wobbly three-legged stool. Let’s say it wobbles because one of its legs is shorter than the other two. Because, now here’s the thing: how can you stop this wobbly stool from wobbling?

Conclusion: this problem doesn’t exist.

The hypothetical stool has three legs it cannot wobble. All three points are well-grounded. It’s a mathematical certainty it’s a logical consequence.

Uncommonly logical punctuation.


This is the interrobang.

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Also – and more easily written as – !? or ?! Take the first few syllables of interrogation mark (?) and combine with (!’s a.k.a.) bang.

It makes no sense that this punctuation mark is still non-standard. It should be an everyday essential in every font. WHY IS IT NOT?! (Sorry, didn’t mean to shout.) How else can I use punctuation to register the disbelief, excitement, or whatever, that is necessary to understand the stresses under which I am writing?

The interrobang was conceived in the stylish vortex of time and place that inspired the hit TV show Mad Men: Madison Avenue, New York City in 1962. One great non-fictional ad man of the day, Martin K. Speckter of Martin K. Speckter Associates Inc, identified the need for punctuation as an aid to excited expression. His advertising brain came up with a copywriter’s dream… an All New Rhetorical Device – !?– lushly reimagined by Top Typographers! It was mooted in the March/April 1962 issue of TYPETalks magazine. For a while there the interrobang coulda been called an ‘exclamaquest’. Who’d a thought?!


This is the percontation point a.k.a. the irony mark.

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Rare is the punctuation that successfully denotes ironic or sarcastic expression. This useful symbol had some currency in England in the late 16th Century and, freshly coined, in 19th Century France. The irony mark never took hold in America. According to the OED, percontation is a question or inquiry which requires more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Clearly, this is a reversed question mark. If you don’t happen to have one handy but feel the need to underscore the “mordant” or sarky(!) qualities of your choice of words you might try putting quotes round the particular object/s of your scorn (as I have done here with ‘mordant’) or editorialising(?) with bracketed exclamation and question marks. I think we can agree that the punctuation point of percontation was more elegant in days of yore


This is a snark mark.

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A full stop followed by a tilde. A particular punctuation-combo that indicates what is written is really not limited by its literal meaning. It was created, sometime around 2007, by American typographer Choz Cunningham, as an end-of-sentence means to denote irony. It would be fair to say that it hasn’t really caught on. Similar in effect to the SarcMark™ (a commercial shortening of ‘sarcasm mark’), an expensive squiggle – not illustrated here – that was contrived, copyrighted and trademarked by another American, Paul Sak, and marketed at its launch in 2010 as a $1.99 download. It looks a bit like a cross between . and @. The meaning is somewhere between .~ and 🙂 – both of which are free. So the SarcMark™, obviously, must be worth so much more than the snark mark or the smiley.~

The snark mark is included here by way of tribute to all those inventive punctuators, whether they change the world or not, who try to make life a squiggle better for all of us.


This is a frowning face.

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It’s what happens when I type a colon followed by an opening bracket. Not happy. But sometimes an emoticon is a far better option than disappointed leader dots… 😦


This is a smiley face.

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Turn that frown upside down. A smiley is what happens when I type a colon followed by a closing bracket. It signals that some form of humour is at play, or that happiness has been achieved. Whether an emoticon (or any other ideogram) should be considered as a punctuation mark or not has no practical relevance here . This particular typographic confection has a job to do and it does so with a smile on its face. 🙂 

Replace the colon with a semicolon and a winking emoticon may emerge. A nod’s as good as a  😉

As for emojis, there are more possibilities than letters in the alphabet…

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…as well as a range of gestures that bring language and communication skills back towards their origins.

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Whether these are symbols or clever abbreviations is moot. What is certain is that, in varying degrees, each punctuates the text of our lives.


This is an X.

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Not quite punctuation but not quite language either. Released from the alphabet and all religious and mathematical symbolism set aside the X (alone or in clusters) sits in text as the representation of one or more kisses. Some social networkers actually codify their relationships by the number of X’s included in a post.

X may mark the spot.

Brandnames and  syndromes also  left unconsidered,  multiple X’s are likely to be concerned with adult behaviour – either as in this censorious 2016 headline from the Birmingham Mail 

Primary school teacher’s XXXX rant at bouncers

… or, with an unsubtle nod and a wink…

FREE XXX FILMS!

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This is the heart symbol.

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Like it, love it or loath it, this icon is culturally iconic. It has long held a place in written text as a figurative representation of romantic love. I ♥ it.

The broader, modern and often less romantic use as ‘to love’, in this form at any rate, dates to a 1977 advertising campaign for New York city.  I♥NY.  It changed our language. It punctuates and peppers contemporary text.

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I ♥ the way some people now use ‘heart’ as a verb.  I heart it. My ♥ will go on.



Also scattered, not quite willy-nilly, across the alphabet’s patterned fabrics…

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  • the mathematical signs for plus, minus, multiply or ‘times’, divide or ‘into’, equals, degree, infinity, per cent, etc.
  • symbols that represent trademark (™), registered trademark (®), copyright (©), among other.
  • hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades and the spots, squares, arrows, dashes and numerals of ricocheting bullet points.
  • dialcritical marks that arrived in the company of the borrowed words they modified: acute, breve, cedilla, circumflex, grave, tilde, umlaut –

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Those two dots that hover over vowels and a range of consonants and have been successfully adopted as a decorative pop-cultural flourish: by the Häagen-Dazs™ ice cream brand and, retrofitted as the (heavy-) metal umlaut, by rock bands Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead, Mötley Crüe, Queensrÿche and the faux-naïve among others, and notably by the parodical Spinal Tap whose gothic logo managed to put an umlaut over the ‘n’ (something this writer cannot achieve, no matter how much I swear at the software).

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For band names the umlaut was pressganged for its Teutonic echoes not to say Wagnerian effect, whereas for the ice cream the umlauted name is a cool but artificial confection. Like something by the Brontë sisters.


I have deliberately avoided (well, in the main) the computer code-writer’s appropriation and repurposing of punctuation and other marks, but it should be noted that those types do speak a different language, and regard all text matter, characters and marks, as having equal weight in the creation of equations. Picture an unwelcome grandma entering a geek/child’s space: it’s an advanced generation of the game of juvenile virtuality vs. seasoned reality. Someone could get hurt. One mis-thumbed keystroke and a fatal comma gets dropped. The die is cast. Let’s eat Grandma.

Back in the pre-digital day, when I was a kid playing on the city streets, there was a playtime superstition: ‘don’t step on the cracks or the bears will get you’. The idea was that you should always be full-footed on the paving slabs, never once using a cracked slab or tripping on the cracks in between, ‘or the bears will get you’. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was less of a game and more of a parentally agreed exercise in reinforcement of the power of conformity – and, as it now happens, it turns out to be a useful metaphor for the unwavering employment of punctuation marks. I have cemented these slabs of text in place in the hope that you will notice them. I don’t want you to just walk over these words, nor be tripped up by the punctuation; I dare you to step on the cracks – just in case a panda gets you. That’s the kind of thing that would seriously punctuate your day.

Period.

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