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Punctuate this, fella

Over on Read Street, The Sun’s book blog, a reader has suggested a new punctuation mark, the tentative hyphen. It’s the tilde, to be used when the writer isn’t sure whether to write two words, a single word or a hyphenated compound word. It’s hedge-your-bets punctuation.

I have an alternative solution to the problem of not knowing whether a compound should be hyphenated: Buy a dictionary. They’re in the stores.

Here’s another: Hire a copy editor to go over your writing. There’s probably more amiss with it than the hyphenation.

Proposals for new punctuation should be greeted with skepticism. Remember the interrobang from the 1960s? The question mark superimposed over an exclamation point was supposed to be handy for statements that were exclamatory but in the form or nature of a question — what the hell, for example. It seems to have passed on, along with the typewriter that was necessary to produce it.* A period usually suffices.

There is also the irony mark, or snark, a reverse quotation mark that a French writer decided would be useful to indicate a statement with an extra layer of meaning, such as sarcasm. Uh-huh. Let’s repunctuate Swift’s “Modest Proposal” with snarks to see how much that improves the work. If your mastery of irony is so feeble that you need punctuation to indicate it, you’re playing out of your league.

As I suggested in a comment at Read Street, perhaps it would be better to master the punctuation we have before reaching for novelties. What the hell.


* If Microsoft has included it in Word, just don’t tell me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (12)


Don't you think the interrobang is better than the often-used alternative?!?!?!?

Using ?!?!?!? just makes your writing look like its done by a 12-year old girl.

BTW, is this D@L's very own Rocky Mountain Bucky?

It's there (Really‽‽‽) but you have to know how to find it... Unicode 203D, if that helps.

I asked you not to tell me that.

Actually, I'm relieved to discover that some of these people give punctuation any thought at all. dont u c LOL

'whether a two write two words' ?

JEM: Fossil remnant from an earlier version of the sentence, now fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.


'Thanks for poitning it out.' ?

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Here’s another: Hire a copy editor to go over your writing.

But whatever you do, don't hire two. Because I have never in my life found two copy editors that believe the same thing about hyphenation.

(Everyone should ideally agree with me, because I'm always right, but that's neither here nor there.)

Point taken, Dave.

Some science-fiction fans, back in the '40s or '50s, invented two useful alternative forms of punctuation. Or, rather, two forms of punctuation that would be useful if anyone other than science-fiction fans understood how they worked.

Quasi-quotes were used to show quotations from (often drunken) conversations, quotations that might, by their very nature, be recalled less than completely accurately. They took the form of underlined single quote marks.

The other fannish punctuation style of note was the use of text overstruck with dashes to indicate irony, sarcasm, and the like. Rather like the use of "sous rature" by postmodern philosophers. But more nerdy.

Mark, if you check out the Dining@Large blog you'll see that Elizabeth Large occasionally uses the second technique you described (I think). See her post of Nov. 21st "Dealing with a nasty post" where she crosses out some words. Is that an example of what you meant?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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