Two years ago, I took a moment to write about “Punctuation Day” which is celebrated near the middle of each September.
Those 14 little marks, often ignored or misused, can be awfully powerful.
Most acknowledge 14 punctuation marks.
We have the period, question mark, exclamation mark, comma, semi-colon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks and ellipses.
(That last one has nothing to do with the moon moving in front of the sun!)
The word “punctuation” comes from the Latin word “punctus” or “point”.
Aristophanes of Byzantium sort of got this punctuation thing started when he was credited with inventing the comma and the full stop, or period.
In Roman writings, they used to run their scripts together with no spaces or punctuation and I think they used the same letter size most times.
I have a friend who sends me texts like that. It’s tough to read.
The period originally took the form of a dot floating in the middle of a line of text and it indicated a stopping point.
Close behind was the comma, from the Greek word “komma” meaning “cut off”.
Commas are one of the most used and and abused punctuation marks ever!
They were originally needed to show orators where they could breathe while reading a script aloud.
Using commas improperly can be costly.
A misplaced comma in a Lockheed-Martin contract cost the company $70,000,000.
A lawsuit in Portland, Maine regarding overtime in an employee’s contract cost that company over $10,000,000.
Do you know what # is?
You might call it the pound sign, the number sign or the hashtag (all correct) but it’s actually an octothorpe and was originally used by map makers.
How about this one…@?
In the Netherlands, they refer to it as a “monkey tail”.
Folks in Israel call it a “strudel”.
The Russians identify it as “little dog” and the Italians “small snail”.
The Bosnians might have the best term for it…”Crazy A”.
Did you know that the exclamation didn’t have it’s own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970’s.
Some of you veteran typists might remember typing a period and then back-spacing to put an apostrophe over it.
Secretary manuals from the 50’s called it a “bang”.
The (!) comes from the Latin word “io” which means “exclamation of joy”.
Then there’s the (?).
It used to be a Latin word…questio” which was then shortened to “qo” and it was juggled about to become (?).
Hyphens (en dashes and em dashes) are interesting.
En dashes and emdashes are supposed to be the same size as the letter describing them.
Therefore, en dashes are a little shorter than em dashes.
Ellipses (…) are from ancient Greece, meaning “omissions”.
There are other symbols, not quite punctuation marks, that have intriguing stores.
Any question asked excitedly required an “interrobang” which showed up as “?!” or “!?” or one superimposed over the other.
We should include that one.
There’s also a bit of a story behind this little mark, (&).
It has it’s very own day every September.
It’s known as the “ampersand” and it used to follow the letter “Z” in the alphabet. Folks say that the symbol mark and word are not interchageable.
This ($) is actually a shortened form of the Spanish peso.
But back to actual punctuation marks, there are 6 basic punctuation rules to follow (if you want to be punctual!).
#1…Punctuation must be parallel.
In other words, interrupting a a main clause with a dash or a comma requires the same punctuation at both the beginning and end of the clause.
#2…An emdash is a strong comma.
#3…A colon appears at the end of a main clause.
#4…A semi-colon is used for equal emphasis.
#5…Parentheses show related, nonessential elements.
#6…Apostrophes show possession or indicate an omission.
It seems to me if punctuation marks have those 6 rules governing their use, they must be pretty important.
I’ve noted how a misplaced or missing comma can can be costly to businesses.
I’ve also detailed in earlier articles how I believe the tiny hyphen might have helped lead to the division we experience in the nation these days.
I would also like to refer you back to the title of this week’s article.
Omit that comma and you might have the main course for the Donner Party that got snowbound in the winter of 1846-1847 in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
It’s just a stupid, little comma, right?
Just ask Grandma.