Monday, July 18, 2011

10 things you might not know about punctuation

From an article by
12:22 p.m. CDT, July 18, 2011

There was big news on the punctuation front a few weeks ago: an unfounded rumor that the Oxford University Press was getting rid of the "serial comma." That's the final comma in a series, as used in most books but few newspapers. (The Tribune would write "blood, sweat and tears"; most books would write "blood, sweat, and tears.") If the uproar confounds you, read on: 

First of all, let's explain why the serial comma is important to some people. A blog on cites an apocryphal example: "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Without a comma after "Rand," the writer has a mighty unusual parentage.

Maybe it's not surprising that New York City, capital of the U.S. publishing industry, has plenty of lore about semicolons. When former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was annoyed by an overeducated bureaucrat, he used the insult "semicolon boy." When the Son of Sam killer put a semicolon in a note, police speculated he might be a freelance journalist. (Killer David Berkowitz was a security guard and cabdriver.)

Union Gen. Joe Hooker got his nickname because a newspaper printer left out a dash. The label headline that was supposed to read "Fighting — Joe Hooker" became "Fighting Joe Hooker." He hated it, but it stuck.

It could be said that the first blow that led to the Russian Revolution was over punctuation. Moscow printers went on strike in 1905, insisting they be paid for typing punctuation marks as well as letters. That led to a general strike across the country and to Czar Nicholas II granting Russia its first constitution.

Punctuation marks arranged to form smiley faces or sad faces may be common in today's digital communication, but emoticons predate texting and the Internet. Puck magazine published such typographical art in 1881.

The most rudimentary punctuation is the dot between words. Romans' ancient texts often ran together without spaces using all capital letters, which meant readers had to start decoding from the first line every time. The introduction of the dot suddenly rendered a block of text legible. The dot between words and numbers engraved on buildings is a legacy of this.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw hated apostrophes, writing: "There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli."

Unnecessary use of quotation marks drives some people so "batty" that they have "posted" more than 1,000 examples of "quotation mark abuse" on the photo sharing site Flickr. Our favorites are signs reading: "Cleaning lady 'available'" and "Best 'food' on 'Route 66.'"

People get awfully philosophical about punctuation. Said author Kurt Vonnegut: "When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon." Comedian Gracie Allen is credited with the aphorism "Never place a period where God has placed a comma."

In 1899, French poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed an "irony mark" (point d'ironie) that would signal that a statement was ironic. The proposed punctuation looked like a question mark facing backward at the end of a sentence. But it didn't catch on. No one seemed to get the point of it, ironically.

Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the newspaper's weekend editor.

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