The Art of Punctuation

Eponine Howarth

We punctuate a life, as we punctuate a story, or a poem. It’s the art of cutting, pacing, harnessing, detaching brigades of words, or moments. The page has to breathe for the meaning to pass. Punctuation is a matter of a breath.

Punctuation also adds more clarity. It is essential to structure a sentence and make it intelligible. Likewise, a life without breathing, without boundaries, is a life of madness.

It is therefore essential to master the few rules of punctuation in order to respect established standards and write well. In the same way, we strive to know the rules of life and society in leading ourexistence. Alternatively, breaking free from the laws of punctuation, such as Apollinaire in his Alcools, means thinking of the poem as a score for the eye and the ear. It is a work for artists or musicians.

First of all, the comma marks a short break. It is a separator that is used frequently to let the reader breathe and give rhythm to the sentence. We punctuate our daily lives with commas. Her alarm rings, she wakes up, she bathes, she dresses, she leaves the house, she takes the subway, she goes to work.

The comma creates a routine, it's the little rituals like coffee that we enjoy in the morning. It gives meaning to everyday life, adds coherence to what we experience. The comma also changes the rhythm, highlights, isolates or frames. It signifies a progression over time. She sees him, she asks him for his first name, he tells her.

Second, the semicolon marks a larger pause than the comma. It is often used to mark a sharp separation without resorting to the full stop. We use semicolons to separate or put in parallel clauses that have a logical link between them. She left him in the middle of the countryside; luckily a farmer was passing by. The semicolon is a break which helps resume without repeating. This can be the end of a bachelor's degree, and the pursuit of a master’s or doctoral thesis.

Third, the colon is generally used to indicate or announce something: an explanation,an enumeration, or introduce a quotation. The colon precedes shopping lists. I have to buy: onions, garlic, milk, butter, tea. The colon aids the reader’s comprehension. Sometimes, it is not possible to make a clarification, and the colon is replaced by a semicolon, or an ellipsis.

The ellipsis often expresses doubt, or silence. She ... left this morning. The ellipsis marks, as the phrase implies, an interruption or a postponement. The ellipsis can be a Sunday in pyjamas, a long wait in an airport lounge, or a pregnancy.

Then,the question mark is placed at the end of an interrogative sentence. Does existence precede essence? The question mark accompanies us in our every day ventures: in our great efforts and in our small endeavours. How much for a pack of cigarettes? Did you talk to Michael yesterday? Did you pay the water bill? A little more spaghetti? Do you not love me anymore? Question marks follow us all our lives. An existence without any question mark is a sign of poorly living.

Next, the exclamation mark expresses surprise, exasperation, admiration, or an order. The exclamation marksthe joys of life, births, weddings, new years. All the celebrations, ceremonies and rituals of all sorts. Congratulations! Some exclamations mark are less structured than others, and official ones are always worthy of a national holiday.

But the exclamation mark is also the worst. The backing of liberties, an act by which an authority orders something, a set of injunctions, of imperative provisions. These are the moments that punctuate history, the sparks of madness. This does not require an example.

Quotation marks allow us to frame someone’s words or writings. When we cite a text, we must respect it. By using the quotation marks, the author guarantees that the framed words are a faithful copy of the original, that he has respected the syntax and punctuation to the letter, that he has neither changed the spelling nor the order of words. Quotation marks are also used for a word, an expression, used in an unusual context, which one wishes to underline or qualify. "My boyfriend" will join us for dinner. In life, the quotes are the books we read, the movies we watch. These are the works and words of others that are reported to us. Their essential role is to mark the change of author, the change of the speech.

The parentheses allow to isolate a word or a group of words, to add a comment, a precision. Paul (Sandra's boyfriend) made us a cake yesterday. But in life, parentheses are also those unimportant events or people, which can be deleted without changing the very meaning of the sentence.

Finally, the full stop indicates the end of a sentence, the end of a story, of an essay, of a life. I will say, despite everything, that this life was agreeable.

This piece was originally written in French, and can be found here.

Eponine Howarth

Eponine Howarth is co-editor-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca.

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