Me? Whee! The Quotable Guide to Punctuation
The sad truth is that a lot of smart, educated people have never been taught how to punctuate, so they aren’t always confident about how to use punctuation marks. How about you?
The following extracts from Stephen Spector’s book, The Quotable Guide to Punctuation, include quotations from a variety of great writers, celebrities, and famous historical figures that exemplify good punctuation so that readers can learn from context.
If you’ve ever watched the sitcom Modern Family, you know that one of the main characters, Phil, can be a loveable klutz. In one episode, he gets jealous when his wife laughs at another man’s jokes, and he blurts out:
Only I can take her to bed and make her laugh!
Phil realizes that came out wrong, though: it seems to say that his wife laughs at him in bed. So he revises it by adding a comma before the word and (and since he’s speaking, he actually says the word ‘comma’):
Only I can take my wife to bed, comma, and make her laugh!
Modern Family, ABC TV, ‘Me? Jealous?’ Feb. 8, 2012
Phil knows that a comma before and creates a pause that can suggest you’re expressing two distinct thoughts. In this case it shows that going to bed with his wife and making her laugh are two different things.
‘Tis not you; ‘tis me.
nytimes.com, Apr. 21, 2016
Apostrophes are a favorite source of stress. George Bernard Shaw despised them. He called apostrophes ‘uncouth bacilli’ and refused to use many of them in his play Pygmalion. Its dialogue included ‘That aint proper writing,’ ‘Wont you sit down,’ and ‘Who said I didnt?’ (He did use the spellings he’ll and it’s though, probably to avoid confusion with hell and its.)
Cheer up—the worst is yet to come.
Mark Twain, letter to his wife, Apr. 19, 1894
Shaw didn’t have much respect for dashes either: he called them ‘the great refuge of those who are too lazy to punctuate’.
A more generous way to say that is a dash can stand in for any of several punctuation marks, functioning just as they do, though with more force and emphasis. That makes the dash the most versatile punctuation mark.
Edgar Allan Poe cherished the dash. He wrote in 1848 that writers must be ‘mortified and vexed’ by the way that printers were removing dashes from authors’ manuscripts and replacing them with semicolons or commas. That, said Poe, was an overreaction to the Romantic poets’ excessive use of dashes twenty years earlier.
In high school, I was the class comedian as opposed to the class clown. The difference is, the class clown is the guy who drops his pants at the football game; the class comedian is the guy who talked him into it.
Billy Crystal, quoted in huffingtonpost.com, Mar. 14, 2013
The semicolon is sort of a weird hybrid of a period and a comma. Like a period, it can create a firm stop between clauses that can stand as complete sentences. But like a comma, it joins those clauses to each other in a way that keeps the reader moving ahead in the sentence. The semicolon even looks like a period placed over a comma.
Muhammad Ali, talk at Harvard, June 4, 1975. This is sometimes called the shortest poem ever written
Exclamation points have been with us in their modern form for over 600 years, but several writers and commentators have warned that using them is more than a failure of style – it’s also a sign of bad taste, and maybe even poor character. ‘An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,’ said F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Elmore Leonard, the great crime novelist and screenwriter, concluded that one of the main rules of good writing is that you’re allowed no more than two or three exclamation points for each 100,000 words of prose. Those of you who use lots of exclamation points in your digital messages may find this hard to believe, but for a long time, typewriters didn’t even have a key for that mark. If people insisted on using one, they’d have to type a period, a backspace, and an apostrophe.
Learn more about punctuating effectively and confidently with Stephen Spector’s The Quotable Guide to Punctuation.