Punctuation as Compasses, Cannonballs, Induced Comas, Nods, Nudges, and Winks
In the lead-up to National Punctuation Day (September 24), we asked writers and translators to comment on their favorite mark of punctuation. Is it the question mark? The semicolon? That quiet director of traffic, the comma? Read on and share your own ode to punctuation in the comments.
An em dash is a deep lunge, a leap. It is the color blue — the horizon line of a sentence — an outreaching arm. It longs more than other punctuation marks, to connect, surge forward, arrive. Or it is a diving board, a door left open. – Richard Blanco, author of How to Love a Country
The Small Exhale
Thought is not language; not inherently; not in the beginning. Thought comes before language, and well before syntax. It’s fluid, instinctual, sprinting from synapse to synapse, charged along the way by rising emotion. It lingers a moment; it reflects; it trips on again. Interrupted by vision, sound, scent—the external world—a thought suddenly absorbs, or is broadsided by, another. All this before language has stepped in to dress the thought. On the page, at once fluid and musing, thought is best adorned with the semicolon, the mark that gives it momentary pause; the character that releases the small exhale. – Fowzia Karimi, author of Above Us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet
One of the more memorable comments in my school reports, amid the proliferation of rather unimaginative complaints about my handwriting, observed that: “He seems to use punctuation more or less at random.” I have since developed a firmer grasp of the rules, but my favorite punctuation mark is still the one that hearkens back to the anarchic days of my youth: the semicolon. More ambiguous than its no-nonsense siblings, the semicolon is akin to body language: a nod, a nudge, a wink (quite literally, sadly, a usage to be abhorred), a knowing smile; something is coming, but I’m not going to shout about it. Used sparingly, it can add a note of sublime insouciance to a sentence. – Kit Maude, translator of Chess with My Grandfather, by Ariel Magnus
How do you grieve a question mark?
The love you believed changed shape
like summer clouds pushed
by southern wind
and joggers trot by
silly in their costumes all serious
as if a sentence always ends
From Contour Feathers (Turning Plow Press, 2021)
Whenever I’m muddling through a complex, too-long-for-English translation of a sentence from Slovene—you know, the kind that wanders between subjects and ideas—I turn to my friend the em dash. Commas, parentheses, semicolons—who needs them, when we have the em dash? The em dash—such a versatile mark of addition, emphasis, interruption—clarifies without being pretentious. It sets ideas apart while also connecting them grammatically to perpendicular thoughts—providing writers dexterity in representing fragmented thoughts and dialogue. Is it possible to overuse the em dash? Yes, yes it is. And I have here. I often do. But in first drafts, I try—like Emily Dickinson—to dwell in its possibility. – Kristina Reardon, translator of “Zeroes,” by Leonora Flis
Em dash—I think in fragments. The em dash is like a bridge that coerces my fragmented sentences into making poetic sense. Of course—it is also a compass. Often, when I hit a roadblock in my writing, it points me to a place of discovery. – Saddiq Dzukogi, author of Your Crib, My Qibla
Missing in Action
All punctuation marks are very dear to me because of what happens when they go missing: ambiguities arise within which writing can play around, opening the door to potential hidden meanings. Punctuation is like gears in a car, a means of controlling the speed at which the reader goes. This function, this power, makes it an invaluable tool, a kind of ally that helps determine the precise pace at which an event or scene is going to be told. I often think about Latin when it didn’t have punctuation marks and what reading it would be like; I think of Twitter and its restrictive 280 characters, an excellent way of what one might call going back to the source. I love the potential for experimentation their absence enables, the return to run-on writing: “You’re right Marta ASAP please pretty please.” Meanwhile, hashtags are busy imitating the Ancient Greek; removing the spaces between words, not to mention accents: #felizdiadelapunctuacion #happypunctuationday. Everything comes back around eventually. – Ana Ojeda (as translated by Kit Maude from the Spanish), author of Vikinga Bonsái
“What is a human life? Just a punctuation mark—a tiny dash between the year of birth and the year of death . . .” – Zoran Živković, author of Impossible Encounters (trans. Alice Copple-Tošić)
Tanita S. Davis
I’m kind of a punctuation aficionado. I actually attempted to use the interrobang when I first heard of it in high school; few people actually knew what it was supposed to be, but I was undeterred. If I can use an ampersand instead of the word it implies, I do—why not add such grace and style to a sentence? Copyeditors despair of my love of the em dash, but I lean on it so heavily as to prevent myself from overusing my true favorite, the ellipses. The three dots infer that something has been left out—deliberately. To me it’s symbolic of self-editing, a purposeful truncating of a rather wordy writer’s impulses, and a reminder that some things are best . . . unsaid. – Tanita S. Davis, author of Partly Cloudy
I love the comma; it is the induced coma for my sentences and verses to protect the thoughts’ clarity while my imagination works on them. And I love the period; it is the bleeding and the time of my sentences and verses to free themselves from myself, their creator. The comma is the illusion, the period is the reality. – Lidija Dimkovska, author of A Spare Life (trans. Christina E. Kramer)
My favorite punctuation mark is none. . . . I prefer to offer the reader of my poetry multiple ways to understand the lines and unify my inner voice to that of the reader in a stream of consciousness which flows freely beyond the grammar. – Constantin Severin, author of Wall and Neutrino: The Poet in New York
Nothing is more helpful in rendering complexity—the Holy Grail of writing—than em dashes. They bookend a thought within a thought, emphasize without exaggeration, and let us bend time—in a backstory, a flashback, a reminiscence—without leaving the space of a single sentence. The em dash is as primary to writing as the period. Why else would it be the only other punctuation mark in Morse code? – Anastasia Edel, author of Russia: Putin’s Playground: Empire, Revolution, and the New Tsar
The more I come to know joy and ache, the more profound the comma becomes to me. We think in our daily languages of the comma as that which divides clauses, or what indicates our speech’s natural pauses: the comma as a measure of a language already made.
But in poetry, the comma can be how a poet controls a poem’s time against that larger, more brutal time. How, even if just for the space of a poem, we can sift, or pace, how our subject’s wonders, or terrors, might unfold.
A comma, especially at the end of a line or stanza, can elongate an anguish—and so allow its acknowledgment. Or a comma in the right place can be an abundance: a salvific pause, a suspension in the ecstatic, or how—from nothing but language and space—we can summon a moment of rest against an inevitable pain.
It’s the smallest of marks, yet it tempers the music of our poems’ time; the breaths we allow ourselves to take. With a simple comma, we can make a language to become the time we wish to measure ourselves along, instead of the time we must live against. – Sasha Pimentel, author of For Want of Water: And Other Poems
Comma, a Controversy
For linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter, the comma is becoming redundant in the digital age. According to him, we could take commas out of most of the texts we read “and would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all.” But it’s not just the internet that agrees with McWhorter; Gertrude Stein considered commas “servile and with no life of their own,” and the Fowler brothers noted in their 1906 book The King’s English: “Anyone who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable, and question his conscience, as severely as we ought to do about disagreeable conduct in real life.”
A few years ago, British writer and essayist Pico Iyer came to the rescue of the aforementioned punctuation mark—which, according to scholars, appears in texts at least three times more often than the period, and five times more often than the semicolon. In an interview, Iyer said that contrary to what Professor McWhorter says, we need commas now more than ever: “precisely because punctuation is falling out of our text messages and e-mails, and because we are more in need of a pause than ever before.” According to Iyer, part of the beauty of the comma is that it offers us a break. Without the comma, he muses, “we will lose all music, nuance and subtlety in communication and end up shouting at one another in block capitals.”
Discussing commas stirs up tempers and, since the time of Saint Jerome—who in the fifth century AD devised the first system of dividing up texts, per cola et commata—sets us before our most intimate pauses and hesitations. Saramago would not be possible without the comma. New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross put a comma in the line “After dinner, the men went into the living-room” so that the men could have time to push back their chairs, stand up, and then head to the living room. And the sad irony of the opening sentence of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee, and its cold, guarded, emotionally distant protagonist, wouldn’t exist if not for the comma: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
In 2001 Iyer wrote an article for Time magazine in which he claimed discussing commas is like discussing love: “in love the smallest things matter desperately, which is why lovers pay such attention to the tiniest marks on the page,” he says. “And no one scans a letter so closely as a lover, searching for its small print, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and hesitations, poring over the secret messages that lie in every cadence.”
There is a scene in Spike Jonze’s film Her about love and commas. The story takes place sometime in the future, when Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system, Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson, in a husky, sensual voice). In the scene the couple argue, and during the fight Theodore angrily asks his robot girlfriend why she sighed while she was speaking. “Why do you do that? It’s not like you need oxygen or anything.”
Apropos the comma, in 1879 Oscar Wilde wrote in his diary: “In the morning I took out a comma, but on mature reflection, I put it back again.” – Emilio Fraia (as translated by Zoë Perry from the Portuguese), author of Sevastopol (trans. Zoë Perry)
The period: a seemingly simple dot that contains multitudes. It sits there at the end of a sentence, unmoving, unmovable, final. It’s the cannonball that ends a battle, the black hole that lets nothing pass. “Period!” my dad would say when he had finished yelling at me and my brothers for misbehaving. We could almost see that black dot materializing in the air. It was like a stop sign without the angles. It brooked no argument; it ended the conversation. When my dad said “Period,” I would visualize that black dot at the end of each sentence I wrote on my papers at school. It was emphatic, conclusive, confident . . . like my dad when he told us that shoving each other or screaming at the top of our lungs was not allowed. So yes, the period may seem restrictive to some, or even harsh, but it’s unambiguous in its meaning, and with it, you know where you stand. – Rachel Cordasco, author of Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium