It’s September 24: National Punctuation Day!! To celebrate, I’m going to indulge in my slightly weird form of synesthesia that has to do with commas and colons. I know: the brains of most synesthetes come alive with colors and personalities when they rest their eyes on numbers or letters; well, in my case it’s punctuation that does the trick — and not just when ‘:’ + ‘)’ = : ) … Here are a few of the characters that dance in my head when my eyes alight on these sentence markers.
The lowly, overused comma is both modest and attention-seeking, hoping to get noticed enough to make the reader pause for breath, but not enough, for the most part, to cause alarm, distraction, or closure. One of the most vital and possibly even the most argued-about little guys in our armory of written symbols, he plods along and does his job, bravely and unobtrusively, without too much fuss.
The underused colon: anticipating, leading, prodding: what explanation or surprise is going to follow it: where is it taking us? So often hijacked and substituted by its less pointed cousin, the comma, the colon looks and thinks forward: what’s next?
The stately and slightly smug semi-colon lords over the comma with its more majestic and powerful pause; without bringing closure, it begs us to stay with the thought; it teases us with the idea that there might be closure; but there’s more. Like a dominant chord before the final tonic, it keeps us dangling and hanging on until the denouement: the period.
The melancholy little ellipsis, which trails off into silence … Never really finishing its thought, but inviting speculation and ambiguity … Sometimes just inquisitive, other times provocative, it gives pause, and invites the reader to draw his own conclusions … A more classy version of the typewritten smiley face, the ellipsis hints at irony, jest, and sometimes it even flirts …
The mad professor’s dash — unable to stay on topic and always ready for an aside — livens and colors the flow of thought. Although it has to be used sparingly — too many dashes in a sentence cause distraction and confusion — its job is unique and can’t be delegated to the more pedestrian comma. No — the dash has some of the exclamation point’s vitality and elan. We write fluently and logically, following a steady stream of thoughts — and then the dash interrupts us, but it can’t be ignored.
Here’s how National Punctuation Day suggests that we celebrate this important day. And remember: don’t overdo it.
Here’s a game plan for your celebration of National Punctuation Day®. A few words of caution: Don’t overdo it.
- Sleep late.
- Take a long shower or bath.
- Go out for coffee and a bagel (or two).
- Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen.
- Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words.
- Stop in those stores to correct the owners.
- If the owners are not there, leave notes.
- Visit a bookstore and purchase a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
- Look up all the words you circled.
- Congratulate yourself on becoming a better written communicator.
- Go home.
- Sit down.
- Write an error-free letter to a friend.
- Take a nap. It has been a long day.