Proper Punctuation
and Its Enemies
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/10/13

Tired of all those little marks—smileys, winkies and hugs ’n’ kisses—that simplify communication while simultaneously cluttering it up? This map gives you ammunition against overusers of exclamation points, abusers of apostrophes, misusers of dashes and all those people—including, undoubtedly, some of your BFFs—who insist on tagging every sentence with an emoticon.

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Oxford Comma
to  Abusing Apostrophe’s

Ezra Koenig, the lead singer of Vampire Weekend, may not give “a fuck about an Oxford comma,” but a surprising number of people do, passionately and partisanly. As Lynne Truss writes in her best-selling punctuation guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: Never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

The Oxford comma, named for Oxford University Press (which favors its use), is the serial comma. The fuss centers on whether inserting this final comma before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more items prevents ambiguity or causes it. In truth, it can do either. And sometimes there’s a problem either way, as in the sentence “She sent invitations to her employers, the Smith family, and the Johnson family,” where deleting the serial comma only introduces another ambiguity.

Even when they aren’t controversial, comma rules can be vexatious, because there are just so many of them. So making occasional comma mistakes—grammarians call them commafaults—is a lot more forgivable than violating rules regarding use of the apostrophe, which are few and simple.

Abusing Apostrophe’s
to  Emily Dickinson’s Dashes

The apostrophe has two basic purposes. First, it is used in possessives—either with S when a noun is singular (the child’s toy) or an irregular plural not ending in S (the children’s game), or all by itself when a noun is a regular plural ending in S (the grandparents’ house). Second, the apostrophe is used to indicate the elided letters in contractions: you’re, didn’t, would’ve, ’twas, rock ’n’ roll.

These seemingly easy rules confound millions, however, and improper apostrophes abound. Called greengrocers’ apostrophes because of produce sellers’ inexplicable propensity for spelling bananas as banana’s and tomatoes as tomato’s, they assert their incorrectness everywhere from restaurant menus to Tea Party protest placards. And, as documented by Britain’s Apostrophe Protection Society, instances in which necessary apostrophes go missing are every bit as epidemic. This dire situation has led more than one wag to propose getting rid of the apostrophe altogether to spare sticklers their annoyance at all the mistakes.

The apostrophe isn’t the only mark of punctuation whose widespread abuse has raised critical hackles. The dash—as overabundantly beloved by Emily Dickinson and other writers as the wrongly placed apostrophe is by semiliterate scribblers—has its cadre of cultured despisers too.

Emily Dickinson’s Dashes
to  Emot:(ons

Employed thoughtlessly and overabundantly, dashes generally weaken writing rather than enhance it. Overreliance on dashes appears to be on the rise—a trend that Noreen Malone, writing in Slate, diagnoses as symptomatic of an “attention-deficit-disordered culture.” Dashes, she implies, mark a writer’s laziness, serving as “escape” keys from the work of carefully crafting a sentence.

Dashes, however, can be used both often and well. Poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) adored them. Commas and periods are rare in her verse; dashes often inundate it, as in this first strophe from poem 569:

I reckon—when I count at all—
First—Poets—Then the Sun—
Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—
And then—the List is done—

Dickinson’s original editors disliked her extravagant dashing and “corrected” her punctuation—a misjudgment, since the dashes improve the rhythm of her lines, making the reader pause to consider the phrase or word enclosed within the strokes. Conventionally punctuated, the stanza above would lose some of its delicacy and most of its punch.

Dickinson’s peculiar punctuation, in other words, acts as visual shorthand for conveying emotion—and in this way (perhaps in this way alone), her dashes aren’t all that different from emoticons.

to  Hugs ’n’ Kisses

There’s nothing new about humans’ quickly communicating ideas or feelings through symbols. Early Christians used the fish-shaped ichthys to secretly identify one another without persecution, and lovers have long concluded love letters with series of O’s and Xs representing hugs and kisses. Emoticons—ideograms composed of punctuation marks, letters and other typographic characters—are newfangled additions to this age-old catalog of signs.

Emoticon is a portmanteau word combining emotion and icon, and many emoticons—including the familiar smiley :) and frowny :( faces—do communicate emotions. But keyboard cleverness knows no limit, and scores if not hundreds of commonly recognized emoticons represent things (a long-stemmed rose: @}-'-,-'-,---),figures (Santa Claus: *<|:o)>) and abstract concepts (an emoticon version of that ancient Christian fish: <><).

In electronic messages, which are often written and read with little attention to tone, emoticons do more than just convey discrete ideas or feelings. They frequently serve as metapunctuation, conveying the spirit in which the message has been sent—good-naturedly, regretfully, ironically—and informing the recipient how it should be received. Thus used, emoticons provide an easy-peasy alternative to choosing one’s words with care.

Hugs ’n’ Kisses
to  Mëtal Ümlauts

Like emoticons, and like the fake umlauts that appear in heavy-metal bands’ names, hugs ’n’ kisses transcend grammatical function to impose a mood. The problem with those O’s and Xs that fondly conclude so many missives is that they, like other declarations of endearment, are sometimes too lightly proffered, or even outright insincere.

The use of an X to represent a kiss has a venerable history. Christian letter writers as far back as the Middle Ages would draw a cross or the Greek letter chi (Χ—for the chi-rho, a shorthand symbol for the Greek word Χριστός, meaning “Christ”) on the document, then kiss it reverently before sealing and sending the epistle. How O came to represent a hug isn’t so clear, but Xs and O’s have been paired in affectionate correspondence for more than a hundred years.

Overuse, however, sullies the effect. It was bad enough back when movie stars signed publicity stills with—to borrow Fats Waller’s phrase—“a lot of kisses on the bottom.” Nowadays, it isn’t unusual to find “xo” or even “XOXOXO” tenderly lurking at the close of a business-related email—and producing a feeling in the recipient that can only be described as icky.

Mëtal Ümlauts
to  Bangorrhea!!!!

In English the diacritical mark called the diaeresis (¨) serves two extremely limited purposes, indicating either (1) that both vowels in a pair should be pronounced individually or (2) that a vowel that seems as if it should be silent must, in fact, be pronounced. Never common, diaereses have almost disappeared from use, surviving only in spellings of a very few words and names—e.g., naïve, Chloë—and, for a more Gothic example, in the surname of that trio of novel-writing sisters, the Brontës.

So why do diaereses decorate the names of so many American and British rock bands, from to Mötley Crüe to Motörhead? Well, those aren’t diaereses; they’re umlauts, stolen from German (where the two-dot mark is common and indicates a shift in a vowel’s pronunciation) and randomly grafted onto letters to make the groups’ names feel kind of Teutonic or just plain nasty. The fake-umlaut trend, favored by heavy-metal bands, was already being mocked a generation ago in the film This Is Spin̈al Tap; its continuing ridiculousness is attested by the title of Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Yoü and I.” Gaga, of course, is zeitgeisty in every which way, including her penchant for bangorrhea.

to  Abusing Apostrophe’s

Lady Gaga not only sets trends in apparel; she’s also a fashion-forward punctuator. Take a look, for instance, at her Facebook page, where every one of her posts, or close to it, ends in an exclamation point. What is it about electronic communications—texts, tweets, social media posts—that makes messages seem so flaccid unless exclamation points are attached? Or even disingenuous. A texted “Happy birthday,” if not accompanied by an exclamation point, looks like the sender didn’t really mean it. Even questions don’t look quite genuine unless followed by an “interrobang” (a question mark paired with an exclaimer). WTF?!

The exclamation point is the methamphetamine of punctuation, and we’re all breaking bad. Worse, we seem to be building up a tolerance. Where one exclaimer used to suffice, we now find we need two or three or more to adequately express our enthusiasm!!!! Someone has even coined a word for our exclamation-prone syndrome: bangorrhea.

Pep-inducing drugs ultimately cause overwhelming fatigue. And as our high school English teachers wisely warned us, unwarranted exclamation points quickly grow tiresome. We should’ve listened to them—and not just about exclamation points. They had some sage advice concerning apostrophes, as well.