The Punctuation Nonconformist’s Manifesto

The Punctuation Nonconformist’s Manifesto
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Updated on 7 January 2016

Guest post by Erica Campbell

Punctuation is like body language. We accentuate what we say with hand gestures, posture, and facial expressions. In the same way, we use punctuation in our writing to emphasize and draw attention to our words. The purpose of punctuation is to link or separate elements of a sentence, avoid ambiguities, and clarify meaning.

Punctuation, like most style matters, has changed over time. In ancient Greece, a text was presented as an UNBROKENSTREAMOFLETTERS, all in uppercase, and readers had to intuit where words and sentences began and ended. When punctuation was introduced—in the form of three dots appearing at the top, middle, and bottom of a line of text—its purpose was to aid a reader’s recitation of the text by showing when to take a long pause or draw a breath.

You may have been taught to certain follow conventions in your writing—that you should never use dashes when writing at work, that parentheses are only to be used to introduce abbreviations, and that hyphens only follow certain constructions. We’re also taught to follow the principle that, with punctuation, less is more.

In The Careful Writer, however, Theodore Bernstein wrote, “About the only thing writers and editors agree on . . . is that a period is placed at the end of a declarative sentence . . . and that a question mark is placed as the end of a sentence that genuinely asks a question.” Given that the rules vary, you have freedom in punctuation usage because your readers may be none the wiser to what the stylebooks say (nor might they care).

We, the punctuation nonconformists, believe that the purpose of punctuation is to clarify a writer’s intention; we object to the status quo that punctuation must conform to rules in a stylebook and that it must be used sparingly. We believe that writers are free to use punctuation liberally to serve punctuation’s purpose of clarifying meaning and creating intended emphasis.

We believe in the power of the great punctuation nonconformists

There are a few great authors who thought better of conforming to punctuation rules and did so with success. Gertrude Stein, for example, cared little for punctuation of any kind, claiming that it interfered with the “going on.” She stated, “When I first began writing, I felt that writing should go on, I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and on . . . What had colons and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it.” Do you follow?

James Joyce didn’t use quotation marks—he used dashes instead—and the soliloquy of Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses is devoid of punctuation, which, arguably, causes confusion. George Bernard Shaw wrote “dont,” “wont,” “doesnt,” and “couldnt” in his works, choosing to create contractions without the burden of apostrophes.

We believe in rare punctuation marks, because what could be clearer than an interrobang‽

The interrobang, a symbol that combines a question mark and exclamation point, has yet to catch on despite its apparent usefulness. You can use it in sentences such as “You expect me to do what‽” or “You left for the airport at what time‽” It’s used for expressions of shock, disbelief, outrage, or puzzlement.

The interrobang’s history begins in the 1960s with the late Martin K. Speckter, a New York advertising executive. He stated that a punctuation mark was needed to express incredulity. The interrobang never caught on, though, because one could type “?” and go back over it with “!” on a typewriter, but typesetters had to handcraft interrobangs by having an illustrator draw them or creating a rubber cement stamp with a razor blade. It was too difficult to implement for common use. Nowadays, although the interrobang can be inserted into text on a computer easily, it seems that Internet users prefer typing emoticons to express disbelief.

Here are a few other rarely used punctuation marks:

The pilcrow (¶) is used to mark the beginning of paragraphs. The octothorpe (#), also known as the hash or pound symbol, is used for hashtagging. The dagger (†) is used to indicate a footnote if an asterisk (*) has already been used. The manicule (☞) was originally used to mark corrections or notes.

We believe in pushing the limits of nonconformity and using only spaces

Instead of using punctuation ignore it entirely and use spaces to separate your paragraphs and add emphasis

For example stop using periods entirely The use of a period in online exchanges is often seen as abrupt You be the judge of whether removing it is better in this context

The use of punctuation is not a hotly debated subject, but the aim of this manifesto is to demonstrate that punctuation usage can exist on a spectrum. The purists may conform to stylebook rules, but there is merit to ignoring those rules in your writing to express your intended meaning with punctuation that is applied freely, and with style.

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