A Defense of Dots and Dashes

New York writer, teacher, and language consultant Ellen Jovin. (Photo courtesy: Brandt Johnson)

When I wrote for an alt newsweekly, I was teased for overusing ellipses, a gutless sort of trailing off … that expects the reader to understand that my thought is incomplete on purpose, that there is far more involved than what I have mentioned. I stuck up for my dots, accusing my (male) critics of demanding aggressive, macho certitude in lieu of drifty ellipses (and quiet-wink parentheticals). And I will put my use of the semicolon up against anyone’s—especially the editor who once confided, in a rash burst of candor, “I’m not sure I know how they ought to be used, so I take ’em out.”

How can such tiny squiggles arouse such hostility?

Many an editor has demonized a particular punctuation mark, shunning and deleting it. We need them all, I wail. Even the detested, girly exclamation point. Curse it if you will, but it is sometimes necessary. “‘The house is on fire,’ he exclaimed” sounds way too calm to save the puppy.

Each punctuation mark has its own personality, its own strengths and weaknesses. They are as willing as elves, dedicated to signposting a reader’s way through the thickets of our prose.

Even the absence of expected punctuation can be significant: I love contemporary fiction’s sleek avoidance of quotation marks, because it allows the dialogue to flow straight into the brain with no awkward first-date pauses.

But periods are also being jettisoned, at least in texts. In Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch refers to “the passive-aggressive potential of the single period,” a power I had not dreamed existed. Ending a short text with a period is now a shot across the bow When I was first taken aside and gently clued in, I spun on my younger colleague and accused her generation of “simplifying” communication by stripping it to a few terse words and absurd abbreviations, only to add back layers of invisible nuance that have to be decoded. Words were easier.

Irrepressible, she countered by citing the magical shorthand of emoji. As though they are a gift? Trojan-horse punctuation marks that turned into cartoons? And God help me, now I use them.

You see how insidious this is. Now I am angry, too. Especially at the friends who persist in leaving two spaces after a period, even though I have told them, perhaps once too often, that the second space is no longer necessary, because unlike an old Royal typewriter, computers kern the spacing based on what character you just typed. Less after an “l,” more after an “m.”

In need of perspective, I call Ellen Jovin, a New York writer, teacher, and language consultant who travels from city to city, setting up her Grammar Table and answering all the questions people are too ashamed to ask their coworkers.

“You want to know what the word on the street is?” she asks, then giggles at her phrasing. “Two that really get people bothered are the Oxford comma and the number of spaces after a period.” I toss my friends under the bus without hesitation. “There are a few sectors where the old two-spaces rule survives, like law,” she says. “Some of the most animated resistance I get is from attorneys in their fifties or older.” She describes an old barrister who pulled himself up, steaming with indignation, and intoned, “Some things were not meant to change.”

Vindicated, I confide my past chastisements and rebellions.

“The ellipsis is definitely confusing to people,” she says soothingly. “So is the semicolon. There are emotional hot-button issues: fear about the semicolon; anxiety about the colon. I actually am an enthusiastic em-dash user; I have my vices. I also talk with a lot of stops and starts. And I love parentheses, because I love asides. Life is in the details.”

When passersby approach the Grammar Table, they are both eager and hesitant. “A lot of people get the names of things confused,” Jovin says. “Colon and semicolon; dash and hyphen; comma and apostrophe and quotation marks. It’s an adventure just trying to figure out what they’re asking about. I get such a kick out of putting three dots on a piece of paper and saying, ‘What do you call that thing?’ You know how people put completely random numbers of dots in? Turns out the Chinese use six. And the semicolon is used as a question mark in Greece.”

Whoa. I thought I had made my peace with the upside-down question mark, but this, this… I struggle to imagine it. What, then, is used for a semicolon?

She is not sure. But she does know that “in nineteenth-century American literature, semicolons have a different kind of life. They get used in places we wouldn’t use them, because the more elaborate style called for heavier punctuation.” To teach contemporary usage, she tries telling people to pretend they are standing at an intersection, then look both left and right. Both clauses must be able to stand on their own. Like a healthy marriage, the semicolon allows them to join without leaning, spineless, on the other.

Jovin gives a sample lesson, then laughs away her own eloquence. “I think a pretty healthy percentage of the people I go over the semicolon with go away and don’t use the semicolon.”

This strikes me as tragic. Writing is simply thinking on paper, and the little squiggles are ways of joining thoughts, interrogating, injecting feeling, pausing for breath, or reaching closure. Punctuation marks are as human as the expressions that flit across our faces—and as charged with meaning. They are bound to provoke strong feelings.

Jovin has had families approach the Table, start a conversation, then realize that they disagree on the Oxford comma. “I might even raise the subject,” she says, “because I like to throw a hand grenade every once in a while.” Her own opinion? “I don’t really care.” An easygoing sort, her only real peeve is the ?! pairing, because it carries such tone. (It does. I use it a lot.)

She does have a small agenda, though: “I feel pretty sure women use more exclamation points than men do,” she says. “People are often discouraged from using them, but I’ve noticed that advice often tilts toward male usage, so I’m thinking I want to advocate a slightly higher use in business.”

The exclamation point conveys emotion, which is why it makes people nervous. Like emotion, it must be carefully rationed in the public sphere, because it is easily overdone; it turns giddy. But emotion is sorely needed in these cooler realms, and so are reassuringly warm exclamation points.

“When I see one in an email—assuming that the sentence isn’t ‘You’re an ass’—I enjoy it,” Jovin says. “Also, I’m cautious about blanket edicts, because I think people take them too seriously and apply them without subtlety.”

Exactly my point. Except that the amount of subtlety now needed is dizzying even to me. We have reached a place of uncertainty as gray and choppy as a winter ocean.

“It’s the merging of traditional grammar with a whole brave new world of psychology, where you are capturing what used to be mostly conversation,” Jovin says, relishing the challenge. “The psychology of punctuation has become richer, more interesting, and way more varied.”

We are not talking about a handful of cranky editors anymore, or about purists as passionate as John Richards, who just ceded defeat after an eighteen-year campaign called The Apostrophe Protection Society. No, we are talking about a free-for-all. Typed letters had a standard format, but email does not—and text turns everything upside down. Expression is as idiosyncratic as Elizabethan spelling—except for those who, paralyzed by the lack of rules, stick to a few safe marks and ignore the rest.

“Some people hate entrepreneurial punctuation,” Jovin concedes. “It’s hard to know your reader’s tastes.”

Hard? It’s like trying to host a dinner party when one person is gluten-free, one hates spicy food, one is vegan, one is vegetarian but not vegan, and one is paleo.

She chuckles with real sympathy. “I caution people increasingly, these days, not to overinterpret.” Emails with coworkers who have become good friends, for example, are bound to be breezily worded and sloppily punctuated—but they can be forwarded, in which case those blown-kiss emojis will cause a few cringes. “You have to punctuate for the present and the future.”

And for multiple generations with a wide range of styles, assumptions, and temperaments.

Hostility might be the only sane response.