A Meditation on Punctuation

8 mins read

No interaction fills me with as much dread as having to write an email to someone for the first time. It has all the pressure of making a good first impression, but it lacks the humanity that allows the tension to be broken (a shared awkward smile or laugh goes a long way). At the same time, there is an added latency between a few minutes and several days during which I stew over what I said, and convince myself that the other person now hates me because of what I wrote. I have often wondered what critical piece of writing actually produces this anxiety, or is at least a tangible component that could be identified. After some reflection, I think the key element that makes written communication harder, and one that does not get enough attention as a potential stressor, is the dilemma of what punctuation to use to end my sentences.

In elementary school, we all learned you could end a sentence with one of three punctuation marks: the question mark, the period, and the exclamation point. And our teachers gave us a guide to using them that was supposed to be universal. You only use question marks when you are asking a direct question. Periods come at the end of statements. And the exclamation point ends a statement with emphasis! But, like the math teachers who told us that we had to learn multiplication tables because we would not have a calculator in our pockets all the time, our grammar teachers did not account for the shift in the function of punctuation marks from delineators of what a particular sentence is to tonal indicators of how a sentence feels. Question marks indicate general uncertainty, periods demonstrate button-down, no-nonsense seriousness, and the exclamation point … I guess the exclamation point is a wildcard.

The problem that arises from this seemingly subtle difference is that any interpersonal writing has an implicitly added dimension of emotion in the punctuation. Considering the audience when punctuating sentences has the immediate effect of people developing multiple patterns of punctuation that they then have to use in the appropriate context. For example, if I am emailing my boss, I would never end a statement with a question mark because I feel that doing so looks unprofessional. Yet, if I am texting my friends, I am more than happy to answer yes-no questions with “Yes?” or “No?”. And if I am communicating with someone new for the first time, it takes me a while to slip into the more casual punctuation schemes. Overall, the complexity just keeps growing and growing to the point where I have a mental spreadsheet of who I know and what lapses in proper syntax I am willing to demonstrate to them.

For me, the big problem that causes this cascade in complexity is the exclamation point. Whenever I use an exclamation point with someone for the first time, it’s a big leap of faith. While exclamation points can be used to express basically any emotion, to me, they not only emphasize the point being made, but also imply a level of eagerness I can only risk expressing to my closest friends. But a period always feels so cold, so devoid of passion; I feel like a machine using the technically correct punctuation only because I cannot compute human emotion. Ideally, there would be a middle-ground punctuation mark, one that would say, “I’m excited, yes, but not, like, too excited either.” However, because of its easy accessibility on text messaging keyboards, I propose we adopt the inverted exclamation point ¡ as a temporary stand-in until we can find a permanent solution.

Broadly speaking, this same issue extends to emoticons and using multiple punctuation marks. But honestly, I expend so much mental energy solely on the exclamation mark that I just outright avoid either unless 1) I am using an ellipsis for dramatic effect to trail off the end of a sentence, or 2) I am using an emoticon that the person I am messaging has used first. However, my exception to my exceptions is that I will avoid using emoticons at all costs when emailing professors — that is simply a red line that I will not cross, no matter how comfortable or casual my correspondent is trying to make the atmosphere. It just feels so awkward to say something like, “Thanks for returning my essay :)”. I might be open to writing intentionally awkward emails to confound professors, like “I’m taking a mental health day, so I won’t be in class ;),” but then that would require an entire 2000-word article dissecting the exact conditions under which it might be okay to invert the power dynamics and mess with a professor (in an appropriate way that complies with the student code of conduct, of course).

I want to clarify, I am not a syntax stickler, and I fault no one for feeling comfortable with bending the rules of writing to convey complex emotions and tonal inflections. I just have a complicated relationship with the English language and its usage, particularly at Swarthmore. I am majoring in English Literature, so I spend a lot more time than the average person pondering the specific importance of each component of writing. And as a student juggling various activities and classes, I seem to constantly need to write emails to new people all the time. Maybe the administration could intervene in this issue. From what I recall from my orientation week, there was a brief explanation of the school’s expectations regarding email courtesy, including a somewhat odd insistence on using “Dear” in a semi-professional setting; they could thus officially allow or ban alternate punctuation mark usage in school emails. I would be fine with either outcome; it is the uncertainty in the punctuation situation that I can’t stand!

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