To some people, punctuation is a pain in the asterisk.
Others regard the apostrophe, exclamation point and other handy devices as guardrails that keep our words from becoming a jumble of nonsense.
But to Jeff Rubin, founder of National Punctuation Day on Sept. 24, the symbols are necessities that do more than just separate sentences.
“Punctuation marks tell a reader when to pause, when to stop, when something is possessive, and when emotions are expressed,” he said. “Punctuation marks are guidelines that create sound in the written word. Without them, every sentence would run on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…”
Rubin, a former journalist who now runs a publishing business in Pinole, California, says he started the holiday in 2004 because he was concerned about the decline of language skills around the nation. The way we write — including the proper usage of punctuation — affects our appearance to others, acceptance at college, grades on papers, promotions and business deals, he says.
That’s why some writing instructors at the University of Central Florida stress punctuation in their classes, especially around National Punctuation Day.
“We’re going to honor National Punctuation Day by taking an adventure safari through the AP Stylebook’s Punctuation Guide,” said Rick Brunson, an associate instructor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media. “I call the lecture, ‘Don’t Get Punc’ed By What You Don’t Know.’”
He said punctuation is not merely cosmetic; it’s essential to making meaning of our thoughts.
“Sentences are a train wreck without proper punctuation.”
“Sentences are a train wreck without proper punctuation,” he said. “Using punctuation properly is critical to successful communication of our ideas. If we want to be understood, we have to know what we’re doing with punctuation.”
Beth Young, an associate professor in the Department of English, said she will include a link to National Punctuation Day on her class calendar to help students understand the importance of proper usage.
She said her punctuation lessons focus “on rules that I could see students had not yet mastered, and on rules they had questions about. Usually, this meant lots of time spent on commas.”
National Punctuation Day celebrants at schools and other organizations, as can be seen on the website, celebrate with contests, baked goods, performances and other activities.
Rubin said he plans to observe the day with “a bagel with shmear and coffee for breakfast, a CrossFit workout, and a search for incorrectly punctuated signs.”
The Baker’s Dozen of Punctuation
According to the National Punctuation Day website, there are 13 punctuation marks commonly used in print.
Not necessarily in order of importance, alphabetically they are: apostrophe, brackets, colon, comma, dash, ellipses, exclamation point, hyphen, parentheses, period, question mark, quotation mark and semicolon.
Other commonly seen marks in writing, such as the asterisk, hashtag, slash “and their ilk are symbols that provide no insight into the thoughts of the writer or the meaning of his or her words,” Rubin said.
Likewise, he said the interrobang — the combination of a question mark and exclamation point that is sometimes seen at the end of an exclamatory question—doesn’t qualify as a punctuation mark.
“It’s an illustration,” Rubin chides.
Brunson calls the apostrophe “the hardest-working punctuation symbol in our language. We ask an awful lot of it, and it does an incredible amount of heavy-lifting for us in our language. The apostrophe can form a contraction, indicate missing letters or numbers, show possession or indicate the plural of a singular object — depending on how we use it. Honor the apostrophe by using it properly.”
Young, who also used to direct UCF’s University Writing Center, says the most common punctuation mistake she sees is an error of omission, when writers forget one comma from a pair of commas around a clause that adds extra or nonessential information to a sentence.
The next most common error, often seen on signs and menus, is the unnecessary use of quotation marks for emphasis that unwittingly cast doubt on something, such as our “delicious” meatloaf, she said.
The Future of Punctuation in the Age of Social Media
Rubin said it sometimes seems that punctuation has been forgotten by writers on social media.
“The errors I see are appalling,” he said. “Just last week I was reprimanded by the administrator of a Facebook group for admonishing someone who posted a single paragraph and misused “it’s” for “its” (he wanted the possessive but instead used a contraction).
“I was told, and I quote, ‘This is social media…’ by the administrator, who removed my post.”
Brunson agrees that the rise of text messaging has created a “punctuation crisis” because of the lack of understanding as to what the symbols mean and convey.
“People randomly and carelessly sprinkle punctuation into their writing as if they were adding fake bacon bits to a salad.”
“People randomly and carelessly sprinkle punctuation into their writing as if they were adding fake bacon bits to a salad,” he said.
Punctuation is definitely changing, Young said.
“We may be more likely to use punctuation in creative ways, such as adding a period. after. every. word. for emphasis. These changes are a natural part of language change,” she said. “To some extent, they reflect a longer trend of colloquialization — written language becoming more like speech — that linguists have observed.”
Many punctuation “rules” are not as straightforward as people imagine, Young said. “Writers often have legitimate choices about when to use which mark,” she said. “Just because you would punctuate differently doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else did it wrong.”
Rubin concedes that someday other marks may find their way into mainstream usage.
“Language evolves. Merriam-Webster adds new words every year,” he said. “Style guides, such as those published by the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, occasionally change usage guidelines. I expect that one day there will be more accepted punctuation marks.”
Meanwhile, properly using the symbols we have now goes a long way to improving communication skills.
“Next to boosting your vocabulary, learning how to properly use punctuation is the one thing anyone can do to single-handedly get people to understand what you’re trying to say and write,” Brunson said. “Punctuation is power.”