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On Sept. 24, celebrating the marks that punctuate our prose

September 23, 2014 By Paul Chevannes Resources

Sept. 24 is National Punctuation Day. The idea behind the celebration is to promote the correct usage of punctuation.

At ACES, we’re all about proper punctuation (although we don’t claim to be perfect). But we also think National Punctuation Day is a good opportunity to learn some of the history of the punctuation marks used in the English language. So we offer this article written by ACES member Paul Chevannes and first published in the ACES May-June 2014 members newsletter.)

Mark my words


Aristophanes, a librarian in Alexandria, Greece, during the fourth century B.C. suggested that readers could use middle, low and high points (dots) to punctuate the written word as the rules of rhetoric then dictated. And that was the birth of punctuation.

Now, can you imagine a world without marks — punctuation marks? It would be like a flower whose bud could not open, a useless quest for recognition and appreciation.

One should never think of punctuation marks as barriers, walls or checkpoints but rather as a security blanket for clarity — our ultimate goal being communication.

A well-punctuated piece of prose is as welcoming as a lovely morning coffee, or like a charming French slogan that I recently came across, which read “Coucou, tu as pris le pain? (“Hi there, have you had your bread/baguette?”)

Let’s trace the roots of a few punctuation marks:

Ampersand

The ampersand is the very regal queen of marks in my opinion. It is a favorite of graphic designers who also use it as a decorative element.

This queen started out life in Rome, Italy, centuries ago. The symbol means “and,” the Latin word being “et,” hence its classical shape, a configuration of the “e” and “t” joined in harmony. A mark of unquestionable aesthetics.

@ Mark

Like the ampersand, this is technically not a punctuation mark, but has been adopted over the years as such. They are called logograms or grammalogues. The @ mark, a most ergonomically designed one, is used to represent the word “at,” and previously rarely used, but now has become a global superstar — thanks to the creation of the Internet.

Dash

Ah, yes, we are all experts on dashes, except for the swung dash that’s been out of vogue for a while and all but forgotten (the seductive ellipsis has taken over in modern times).

The swung dash was traditionally used to indicate the omission of a word or part of a word. This mark has never lost its luster in Japan. It is also used a lot by graphic designers as a decorative element (dingbat).

Although it looks like a tilde its usage must never be confused.

Hyphen

This punctuation mark has caused great consternation amongst many experts and novices alike.

A hyphen can be as critical as being on life-support, as both the literary and legal professions can attest. Even U.S. presidents have gotten in on the act — President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson reprimanded fellow citizens over using hyphenated ethnic jargon, e.g., German-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc., for their perceived divided loyalties to the United States.

And of course, there’s NASA’s missing hyphen that led to the absolute failure of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe of Venus. The missing hyphen in coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the spacecraft to explode a few minutes after takeoff — at a price tag of $80 million. “2001: A Space Odyssey” novelist Arthur C. Clarke referred to it as “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

Pilcrow

A favorite punctuation mark of mine, but unfortunately long defunct. However, a trace of it is left — even though it has been relegated to a mere proofreaders’ mark — a reverse-P shape with two vertical bars instead of the usual one. This mark means to begin a new paragraph.

The pilcrow was adopted by the Romans between the late second and early third century, from ancient Greece. This mark was used between words as there were no spaces between words then, and previously dots (miniature bullets) were used. Apparently this was for fashionable reasons rather than for practicality.

Asterisk

The utility player in the punctuation world, it never fails to hit a home run, and a lot of times some grand slams, too.

Its illustrious history harkens back to Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth century B.C. It is probably one of the oldest punctuation marks still around today.

The word asterisk is taken from the Latin aster, meaning star, but that was derived from the original Greek word asteriskos or little star.

Its versatility leads to at least eight different usages. One of my favorites is called asterism — three asterisks in a triangular formation. Its three main uses are: to indicate minor breaks in text; to call attention to a passage; and to separate sub-chapters in a book.

There is a derivative of asterism that is called a dinkus, where there are three consecutive asterisks, all in a straight row. Beware of its slang usage.

So, you can see why this “little star” is such a big star.

Paul Chevannes is the supervisor for copy editing/proofreading at Tiffany & Company and has been an ACES member since 2011.

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