For %@#&’s sake

Like musical notation, punctuation is code, offering more than its symbols suggest and adding layers of meaning without unnecessary verbiage.

Before punctuation, handwritten texts featured words in an unbroken stream. Early punctuation arose for entirely practical reasons, such as assisting readers of scripture to pause for breath while not losing the context.

Here’s a standard trivia question: how many punctuation marks are commonly used in English? Here’s the standard answer: fourteen.

(i) full stop (or ‘period’ if you’re American) (ii) question mark (iii) exclamation mark (exclamation point’ for Americans) (iv) comma (v) semicolon (vi) colon (vii) dash (viii) hyphen (ix) parentheses (x) brackets (xi) braces (xii) apostrophe (xiii) quotation marks or inverted commas (xiv) ellipsis.

But fourteen will no longer do.

Nowadays we have access to a range of variable fonts and typeface on any computer. How can that old exclusive club ignore such recurring characters as the following?

(i) slash – also known as ‘solidus,’ ‘slope bar,’ ‘diagonal,’ oblique,’ ‘shilling mark’ or ’virgule’ (ii) hash (iii) currency signs (iv) ampersand (v) asterisk (vi) square brackets (vii) at sign @ (viii) ‘caret’ – an upside down V, also known as the ‘wedge,’ the ‘up arrow’ or the ‘hat’ (ix) the ‘therefore sign’ (a three-point plug) and (x) its upside down image signifying ‘because’.

Add to this list the many other marks available in standard software, such as the percentage mark and all those mathematical symbols, not to mention a welter of diacritical marks used in words from Spanish, French, German and just about every other language. Some of these can no longer be neatly separated into standard and non-standard.

Yet a few still tend towards the obscure. Lesser known include the very old and the new.

There is the ‘pilcrow’:

This was used to indicate paragraph breaks and is sometimes is known as ‘the blind P’. Pilcrow was a Middle English word for ‘paragraph.’ That makes sense. We can imagine clerics snatching a breath when reading aloud from scripture. And this quaint symbol is available in Word. Some people even click it for default display to mark their place while drafting documents.

There is also the decorative ‘hedera’:

This word is Latin for ‘ivy’ and the symbol is also known as the ‘fleuron’. The hedera functioned as a paragraph divider too, though just as often it graced the page border as an ornament. Today it retains decorative value only.

Here’s a more recent punctuation mark, the ‘interrobang’:

This one amounts to a polite WTF??!! It may not feature on the standard keyboard but it can make an impact when used. Not for everyone perhaps yet it’s growing in levels of acceptance.

Of these new kids on the block, my personal favourite is a symbol known as the ‘snark’:

This one is also called the ‘percontation point,’ ‘rhetorical question mark’ or ‘irony mark’. A recent addition, it offers an opportunity to add a shade of meaning. By offering a reverse question mark, a writer can suggest ironic comment without needing further explanation. It remains on the fringe of acceptance though.

A more extreme version of this idea is called the ‘SarcMark’ ™:

This one is a proprietary creation, short for ‘sarcasm mark’. It’s less obvious in design, bearing a logo-like quality. It’s a bit too try-hard for my tastes. Perhaps I’m allergic to sarcasm.

But why do we even new punctuation marks?

Before the invention of moveable type when books were hand-written, scribes relied on home-grown style guides. Decorative marks to beautify a page were no problem but when a scribe translated text, the effort was fraught with peril. A scribe might use punctuation which only local readers would understand. And there weren’t that many readers.

With the advent of moveable type, mass production and mass distribution dictated the need to standardise punctuation, like spelling. A reader in the next county or the next country might not otherwise be able to follow the meaning.

Fast forward to today. In the twenty-first century, adding whimsical new punctuation marks like the interrobang or the snark might be amusing but they’ll only be effective if readers are in on the joke. Outliers such as the SarcMark™ cannot deliver without such widespread acceptance. And like most readers I remain unconvinced, sticking with the usual suspects. But I’m open to novelty, so let’s see what happens.

I have identified one area where punctuation marks of all kinds might come in handy: the Comments section of on-line posts for newspapers. If an algorithm can be developed to recognise particular words and convert them into certain symbols, this might ease the tension of trolling and counter-trolling.

So %@#& you and your ($+)*^~ë{¥©} opinions. Who could take offence at that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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