Punctuation Series: Advanced Punctuation
Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
This article in the punctuation series explores a mixed bag of punctuation marks: ellipses, ampersands, exclamation marks and question marks. These marks are familiar, but a little towards the exotic end of the spectrum, enjoying less frequent use than, say, commas and full stops. These are the advanced punctuation marks, for experienced punctuators only.
Ellipses are great. That string of three full stops packs a whole lotta meaning, depending on context. The underlying principle behind the ellipsis is that it indicates something unsaid. The unsaid element can be leaps of thought, pregnant pauses, or matter omitted from a quotation. The rules of use vary slightly between informal and formal contexts.
The ellipsis is very expressive in informal use, including fiction. It can indicate trailing off:
"I know I said I'd make a frosty cone, but then I saw the blueberries…"
Or it can indicate a pause while thinking takes place in the background:
Just imagine a bowl full of blueberries…wait, can you even buy blueberries on Mars?
And it can string apparently disparate thoughts together, in a stream of consciousness:
But if the blueberries are overripe…like that time in Barbados…God, what was Marco doing now?…then they could still go into the muffins, couldn't they?
In informal use, the ellipsis is usually used unspaced: it attaches to the last word preceding it in the same way a full stop or comma would. If the ellipsis is the last thing in the sentence, there is no need for any other terminating punctuation, although you can add a question mark or an exclamation mark, if required:
But if the mayor had found more blueberries…?
If the mayor had found more blueberries where everyone else had failed…!
If you end a sentence with an ellipsis, make sure you leave a space before the next sentence begins.
In formal writing, the ellipsis is primarily used to indicate an omission from a quote.
The Mayor announced "There will be no further … blueberries this year."
In condensing wordy quotations, the ellipsis is invaluable to journalism and academic writing: it allows the writer to include only what is strictly necessary and relevant.
In formal writing, the rules regarding spacing around ellipses vary from style guide to style guide, but there is some commonality. When the ellipsis is used to indicate omitted text within a sentence, there should be a space either side of it:
The Mayor's announcement caused consternation and … aggression among the electorate.
Where the omitted text ends a sentence, a full stop combined with an ellipsis is often used:
This blueberry shortage will affect the Mayor's popularity.… However, there should be an upswing in the polls come pumpkin season.
In this four-stop ellipsis, the full stop is attached to the last word, and then the ellipsis is entered after that. Don't forget to leave a space before the next word.
Dear old ampersands! As a punctuation icon, few are as pretty and as straightforward to use: the ampersand is a bit of a pet of mine.
Cute old-timey symbols, beloved by that intersection of the population that loves both tattoos and typography (it's a bigger intersection than you'd think). The ampersand simply means "and". It was originally the ligature (a single glyph used to typeset a particular letter combination) for "et", which is Latin for "and", and developed over time to become one of the most stylised punctuation marks. (As a side note, if you've ever seen the phrase "&c" used to mean "etc", that's due to the ampersand originally indicating "et". "&c" = etc" Get it?)
Wikipedia tells me (and I have no reason to disbelieve it) the name "ampersand" is an evolution of the phrase "and per se and": once upon a time, children taught to recite the alphabet would say "per se" before any letter that could otherwise stand on its own as a word. So they would say "Per se A, B, C…F, G, H, per se I, J…" and then the ampersand glyph was considered the 27th member of the alphabet. Once they got to the end, the reciter would consequently say "…X, Y, Z and per se and." (Where the first "and" is the conjunction, and the second "and" the glyph.) So over time, this ran together and became "ampersand". Voila! New word.
In English, the ampersand means "and": as a rule, it is not used in prose. It appears in headings, titles, author listings, table headings and bibliographic citations, where space is typically at a premium and contracting the word into a single glyph is useful and reader-friendly. Feel free to use them in tweets or texts, where the number of characters counts against you, but in emails, you had much better spell out "and".
In my earlier Full Stops article, I touched on the use of the exclamation mark, but not in any detail. Let's explore it further here.
Exclamation marks are famously controversial. Most people have heard the line about how one only gets seven exclamation marks to use in one's whole life. (The number varies with the teller.) And while I don't agree with the fixed exclamation mark budget, I do agree that restraint is your best friend here.
In much the same way you don't shout every sentence, you don't need exclamation marks nearly as much as you think you do. It's like playing a whole piece of music fortissimo: any meaning or significance to be given through the use of one is immediately diluted through the use of more. Excessive exclamation marks bludgeon the reader.
"Oh my God!" Carly shouted. "This is amazing! I've never seen a cat like that one! Look at its fur! It's so cute!"
After reading this example, you're probably already sick of Carly.
"Oh my God." Said Carly. "I've never a seen a cat like that one. Look at its fur! It's so cute."
In this example, Carly's enthusiasm is expressed through the single exclamation point following her fur-related statement.
If your writing seems to naturally spring exclamation marks, you may need to rethink what's going on: if you need to belt your reader with an exclamation mark to say "this is astonishing!", "this is shocking!" "this is infuriating!" every sentence or so, then you could probably convey the same information through word choice. In fiction, your reader should be as surprised and astonished by the events unfolding as the characters are. Similarly, in non-fiction, the facts or argument unfolded in the prose should stand on their own feet: the reader won't need exclamation marks to tell them how to interpret the facts if you present them well.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, in critique of someone else's writing, "Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes." I think this succinctly explains why excessive exclamation marks are annoying.
I can't really think of a situation in business or government writing that would benefit from using an exclamation mark, but that's not to say it wouldn't emerge. Tread with extreme caution, however: if you feel the urge to use an exclamation mark coming on, maybe stop and have a cup of tea and a bit of a think first.
A final important point about exclamation marks: they have enjoyed something of a Renaissance lately. Most people find that an exclamation mark in email, chat, online comments, and text messages can be used to provides a cheerful flavour that may otherwise be missing. Compare:
In the absence of any other illuminating context, the enthusiasm in the second example is clear. Similarly, compare signing an email with "Thanks." versus "Thanks!" and you can see the second sounds more cheerful. While I still advocate restraint in exclamation marks, I can also recommend that judicious use can ensure a more positive tone to your emails where there may otherwise be ambiguity.
I'm concluding this article with one of the most straightforward marks in punctuation: the question mark. Asking a question? You're gonna need a question mark there, buddy. See? Easy. Or is it? The one gotcha that trips up a lot of writers is the indirect question. If you (or your speaking character) address a question directly to someone, you can pretty confidently slap a question mark on the end (and, if you're speaking, an upward inflection). But if you're using an indirect question, then that question mark can take a rest. Compare these two statements:
I'm asking if you like blueberries.
I'm asking: do you like blueberries?
The first is a statement and the second a question: that's pretty clear when you see them side by side. The problem emerges when writers confuse the first (a statement about a question) with the second, and try to put a question mark on the end. Here's another example:
The question was whether you like blueberries.
The question was: do you like blueberries?
If you read these examples aloud, you will probably find that you maintain a fairly steady voice through the first sentence but adopt an upward inflection on the second option. That upward inflection usually indicates you'll need a question mark.
While a lot of these punctuation marks don't get used as often, they're still strong contributors to the writer's toolbox. A good understanding of them can bring extra depth and clarity to your writing.