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Posted on 09.24.2009

What the … ?!

An article earlier this week in the Chicago Tribune reminded me that today is National Punctuation Day.  Sadly, the sun will likely set with this special day unrecognized by most.  As a defender of written language (and as a professional who pays a mortgage and purchases health benefits based on my ability to communicate well) I would be remiss to let the day pass without a nod. So, in honor of English teachers everywhere (especially you, Ms. Sturgeon and Sister Mary Hildebrand), I offer a quick tutorial on three oft misunderstood punctuation marks. The semicolon. Poignant, decisive mark that rarely sees appropriate stage-time. The cabernet franc of punctuation. Use the semicolon to separate two complete but closely related sentences. “At her core she was a grammar marm; she could not let the national holiday go by unnoticed.” This mark is also appropriately placed between compound elements in a list. “Authenticity to both style and substance dominated her language in professional matters; in casual conversations at home, work or play; and in dialogue or debate with those of similar grammarian interests.” The ellipsis. Seinfeld successfully transitioned this punctuation mark to spoken language in the 1997 episode “Yada yada yada.” (N.B.: the Seindfeldism requires no punctuation.) The ellipsis notes a lapse or omission in a thought or quote.  Use it for brevity, when an original quote or passage is just too darn long, or discretion - when a sentence contains elements too racy or distasteful for general audience consumption.  The mark is comprised of three dots (periods) and is treated like a word, meaning, it is appropriately placed with a space before and after the triad. “Clandestine episodes in the library between the grammar student and professor … were replayed as treasured memories long after matriculation was complete.” The interrobang. Not unlike the guy in the Mac commercials, this punctuation combo meal is fairly ubiquitous, though few know its proper name. The interrobang (or interabang) combines the exclamation point and question mark.  In its most authentic representation, the two characters are actually morphed together into a single mark; as most electronic typefaces do not support the interrobang, side-by-side placement of the two marks is also acceptable.  While not an officially sanctioned punctuation mark, the interrobang has widespread use as an interjection that denotes the mixture of query and excitement. In its most common appearance, the interrobang partners with the ellipsis: “What the … ?!” A second example:  “The budding writer flung the ribbons and wrap from the abbreviated Oxford English Dictionary and grasped her grandfather tightly about the neck, “Oh, Papa, how did you know?!”

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