Marking Our Words

As part of a symposium on the “best punctuation mark,” Kassia St. Clair makes the case that the ellipsis is especially well-suited to the social media era:

Its fortunes have risen with e-mails, texts and instant messages. Immediate, informal, midway between letters and conversation, these media have changed the way we write, and the ellipsis has done much of that work. With just three jabs of a digit you can elegantly express polite disagreement, thoughtfulness or expectation, or just let the other person know there’s more to come. A well-placed ellipsis cuts through swathes of verbosity, leaving quotes with the necessary punch to entertain or enlighten.

Julian Barnes differs, favoring the exclamation mark, while Claire Messud prefers the semi-colon. Johnny Grimond, the author of The Economist’s style guide, insists that the comma reigns supreme:

[T]he comma is an adaptable, protean multi-tasker. It started life long ago as a device to separate passages of text into smaller fragments, and thus to aid understanding. It has evolved ever since, amid changing fashions and disputed rules. In this, it is like the English language of which it is a part. Well used, it resolves ambiguities and makes communication easier. It also makes English more fun.

The full stop is perfect for jabbers and peckers. They’re the staccato exponents of the short sentence. The dash has an obvious appeal for those who relish a backhand sweep—and to hell with the words that precede or follow it. The colon is fine for those who like to declare and deliver: first comes the announcement, then the explanation. The semi-colon plays a useful role for the indecisive; or perhaps temperamentally undecided would be a better phrase. (Brackets are beloved by those who cannot bear to leave out some irrelevant fact they happen to know.) No punctuation mark, however, can match the comma.