Sept. 24 is National Punctuation Day! Hurray!
Founded by writer and designer Jeff Rubin, this annual holiday is “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”
And what reverence these marks deserve! Punctuation is a beautiful thing, yet all too often it is taken for granted. While letters greedily demand all of our attention for their conveyance of sound and ability to form words, punctuation is the unsung hero that gives those words clarity, rhythm and tone. Imagine the unanswered queries in a world without question marks, the blasé ennui that a lack of exclamation points would inspire, the scandalous dangling modifiers that might prevail in the absence of commas! The written word would be a far paler, much more confusing device without those dashes, dots and curves to guide us along.
So in honor of National Punctuation Day and the wonderful signs that so selflessly serve to bring letters to life, we present these brief biographies of some of our favorites.
The question mark
Also known as an interrogation point, interrogation mark, question point, query, or eroteme, the question mark may win the crown for being the most elegant of punctuation forms, perhaps only bested by the ampersand. Lynne Truss explains in the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” that the question mark began life in the second half of the 8th century as the “punctus interrogatives,” where it resembled a lightning bolt striking from right to left. It is thought to come from the Latin “quæstio,” meaning "question" – signified by a capital Q atop a lower-case o. From there, the abbreviation morphed into the seahorse squiggle that we know today. Technically the question mark should only be used in the case of direct questions, but with the advent of teen-induced upward inflection when speaking, the question mark is being more commonly employed for indirect questions as well.
The exclamation point
The undeniably happiest mark in the bunch, until the mid-17th century the exclamation point was known as the "sign of exclamation" or the "note of admiration." The printing world and modern slang have bestowed the beloved full-stop point with a vertical line with various monikers such as screamer, gasper, slammer, startler, shriek, and pling. Wow! It is also commonly called a "bang," an effective nickname used by printers and those dictating to secretaries to add abbreviated punch to the call for exclamation. The reigning theory suggests that this perky point comes from the Latin exclamation of joy: “io.” Medieval copyists used to write “io” at the end of a sentence to indicate delight; eventually the i and the o converged to form the sign of exuberance that we know and love (and often overuse) today.
Prior to the 1970s, standard typewriters generally did not include an exclamation point, typers were required to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe to express their joy. A life without exclamation points is hard to conceive of now, given our reliance on quick written notes as our primary source of communication. As Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty told New York Magazine, "Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period." Adding, "sometimes I'm in such a quandary that I put them in and take them out and put them in again.” (She writes, without exclamation.)
Variously known as the number sign, pound, hash, octothorpe, crosshatch, fence, mesh, flash, grid, pig-pen, tic-tac-toe, scratch, gate, hak, oof, rake, crunch, punch mark, sink, corridor and waffle (#phew!), the hashtag went from mundane workhorse to overnight megastar when early tweeter Chris Messina hatched a hashtag plan.
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
The history of this designating darling of the Twitterverse is a bit murky, but theories abound. Wordsmith William Safire decided on the theory that it’s a derivative from the unit of weight, a pound, writing, “The origin [of the touch-tone keypad term] may be from the use of # to mean 'pound,' as in 'a 5# bag of sugar,' written by someone unhappy with the abbreviation lb. to stand for 'pound.'” Coming from the Latin "libra pondo," the theory claims that printers initially used "lb" to indicate the measurement, but later struck a line through the verticals so that the letter l would not be confused with the number 1. #cool.
Also known as suspension points, points of ellipsis, periods of ellipsis, or plain old "dot-dot-dot,” the diacritical marks of ellipses are the poets of punctuation. Three periods in a row that speak volumes in their expression of omission. They represent the things not said. They are used to indicate the intentional removal of words from a text while maintaining its meaning, but they are also heavily employed to convey an unfinished thought, a pause, a sense of melancholia, sarcasm or a suggestive idea. They are the punctuation to employ when using the rhetorical device of aposiopesis – where a statement is abruptly stopped to express passion, excitement, fear, etcetera. The word ellipsis comes from Greek, meaning "falling short." So beautiful ... little more needs to be said.
Oh, the interrobang! What a quirky fellow, the point that marches to a different drummer, the non-standard mark that is ardently adored by its fans but has yet to make it big. An awkward but earnest blend of the exclamation point and question mark, the interrobang was created in 1962 by advertising executive Martin K. Speckter. Speckter proposed the idea of the combo typographical device in a magazine article, and solicited name suggestions from readers. Contenders included rhet, exclarotive and exclamaquest, but interrobang was the rightful winner. The mark is said to be the typographical equivalent of a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders, notes The New York Times. “It applied solely to the rhetorical, Mr. Speckter said, when a writer wished to convey incredulity.” For example, the Times explains, the interrobang would be used in an expression like: ''You call that a hat?!'' For now, the interrobang awaits its day in the sun and remains absent from most keyboards; but given the history of the once-neglected exclamation point, there's always hope?!