On Punctuation

on punctuation redhead writingWhatever you were expecting to find when you clicked through or opened your inbox today, It’s likely that the following is quite the contrary. If you’re in search of a lesson in the English language and the foibles we all make with those little marks, I can recommend a post or two from The Oatmeal and send you here to grab a copy of the indispensable Strunk & White Elements of Style (and christ, no – that’s not an affiliate link). We’re going to talk about the punctuation we all insist on letting fuck up our perfectly good lives. Emotional punctuation.

Really.

Really…

Really?

Really?!

While the only perceptible difference to a smart ass between the iterations above might be some dots and squiggly marks, those four variations of “really” are a pretty good example of how we punctuate out lives. We’re a culture that’s boiled communications down to abbreviated exchanges via email and text and many times, we’re unaware of how we come across in writing. I’m just as guilty as the next person and it got me to thinking – can I use punctuation to change my life?

We read aloud in our heads. The top Really becomes a response to the third Really? while the second is something we let seep when someone pulls a jackwagon move in traffic. The fourth is an exclamation, reserved for the most frustrating and inconceivable of situations (perhaps one like this). But in print, without the proper punctuation, we could read them all the same.

So today, I want to take a trip through a few pieces of punctuation and share what they mean to me and maybe you’ll find something important for yourself in here as well. Writing is inherently selfish, so the least I can do for those of you who share your time with me is give you something you can take away and move forward with, right?

The Exclamation (!) Point

A phrase I use quite often in the company of friends is, “Now this time, with feeling!” It’s usually in response to a lackluster reaction to something on their part. But an exclamation point isn’t about anger – for me, it’s joy. Unbridled joy! I laugh, I giggle, I simply can’t contain myself. When I find my head so far up my ass that there’s no reason for my annual ladybits exam that year, an exclamation point can give me the endorphin rush I need. Yes becomes Yes! Okay becomes Okay! We were so conditioned in our schooling to perceive exclamation points as yelling or something else negative that it helps me to use them more often and in ways that are meaningful to me. They have the power to change your day, your attitude. They can get you off the sofa and back into life when shit rolls downhill. Grab some exclamation points and put them in the bag with your laptop today. Apply often and liberally (BUT IF I CATCH YOU TYPING IN ALL CAPS I’LL KICK YOU IN THE NUTS.).

The Ellipsis (…)

From purely a technical standpoint, an ellipsis is three periods used in succession. Never four. Never five, for fuck sake. Three – just like Goldilocks and the three bears she performs a B&E on so she can nom their porridge. They’re the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, all lined-up so you can get a good look at ’em. An ellipsis is the punctuation embodiment of possibility.

In writing, they’re used in indicate a pause, a breath – a signal of something to come. Use them like that in your life as well. When tempted to use an exclamation point for anger, insert an ellipsis. Breathe. See what comes out on the other side. Sure, sometimes you might still want to choke the living shit out of someone, but other times, you might begin to see things differently. My life needs more ellipses – moments where I stop and take a breath. Ellipses make the unmanageable manageable and put the requisite air back into your lungs so you can stop letting life wind you every time you see a flight of stairs. Three dots – who thought they could open doors? They can also close them as well, if that the right outcome. Embrace the possibility that comes with pause and put those three little dots to work for you.

The Question (?) Mark

I’ve saved the best for last because this curvaceous being has quite the set of balls on it (okay, maybe just one ball but it’s a hefty ball). We ask ourselves questions multiple times a day – but why do we ask?

Second Guessing: How many times have you second guessed yourself into oblivion – avoided taking any action at all because the question you posed was so paralyzing? Question marks don’t belong here. I’m pretty convinced that in these cases, we turn their volume up so loud to drown out the incessant whine of our gut (which is always in the background with the right answer and course we should follow). Guts are meant to be listened to and while the question mark of Second Guessing might be ripping out a wicked Jimi Hendrix riff, it’s not doing us any good. Grab these question marks and move them over into another category and let your gut do what it’s built to do.

Baiting: Yeah, you do it. I do it. We ask questions to get the answers we want from someone who matters to us. Wouldn’t it be better to stand confident in our own skin and give ourselves permission to feel the way we do? We’re human and will always need some sort of external validation throughout our years for some reason or another. But baiting with questions is passive aggressive and a sign that we’re too much of a pussy to go – you know, I look great. I feel great. I know I gained weight. Yeah, I should skip the dessert. I rocked that presentation. No doubt – I fucked it up. Own yourself, own your actions. Stop asking for permission to feel the way you feel with a misplaced question mark. Make them statements of fact because owning your shit is super sexy.

Learning: The most powerful of the question marks. We use them to inquire and explore. They prompt laughter when you listen to the answers or perhaps bring tears because you didn’t see the response coming and it moved your soul. When we ask questions withan open mind (instead of one that’s baiting or full of doubt), we have the chance to change our lives and the lives of others.

Sharing is the mark of a more emotionally evolved being – we crave the interaction and sense of reward that comes with being a better version of our former selves before we opened up. Asking questions gives us the chance to bring something into our lives we didn’t have but a moment ago and when asked, we have the chance to learn something about ourselves through our answers. They’re the universal punctuation mark signifying an open mind and for many, an open heart. And they’re also the Pandora’s Box of punctuation, as by answering one a myriad of others are prompted. I don’t think there’s any greater gift can we give ourselves than changing the way we see the question mark and opt to use it as a tool to bring us closer to the person we always hoped to be – for ourselves and those who matter to us most.

So how do you punctuate your life? I never thought I’d see punctuation as something that was a business tool, much less a life skill – but it’s one of the most useful I’ve ever had the good fortune of stumbling across. I owe a dinner with Emily Rapoport for this perspective that’s been germinating and am really looking forward to what lies ahead as I continue to figure out the punctuation that rules my world.

More excitement!

Infinite possibilities…

How can I do better in everything I choose to undertake?

It’s a pretty cool world in the life of a redhead this morning. And all because of punctuation.

31 comments
Farmers Wife
Farmers Wife

I too am an optimistic, happy exclamation point! :-D [I'm also an over zealous smily user. And, I heart brackets over parenthesis.] Ellipses: I'm an abuser and *ducking head* use the 4 and 5 for 'extra' pause or serious inflection. But in social writing, not publishable writing. Everyone uses the '?!' now days. I've even seen it in novels, yet I was edited by my writing instructor never to do that. But, it works so well so "Why not?!" I ask. :-) Great post!

J.D. Meier
J.D. Meier

Beautiful point on the ellipsis ... I'm a fan of the power of the pause.

Maggie
Maggie

Please write more... this is such a great blog!  Even though I am over 50 and college educated I am terrible at grammar and spelling.  I love articles that present it in fun ways.  I am an artist so I always tell people that the creative side of my brain takes over.  I spell and punctuate in a creative way. ;-)  Hope you have a good day.

davinabrewer
davinabrewer

Very much enjoyed this. I'm stingy with my exclamations, gotta admit. Have to be very fired up to go there. Questions, great - you ask for help, you learn, you call for a response, some action, you hedge your bets with the question. Now the ellipsis, there I cheat, maybe it's Twitter or I'm going for a short pause.. so I short it one period. Maybe I'll let myself take longer, less choking breaks. FWIW.

Kat Jaibur
Kat Jaibur

What a shock to find that you feel the exclamation point is not only "okay", but encouraged! As a copywriter, using the exclamation point was bludgeoned out of me long, long ago. But it seems that I can't keep it from popping up everywhere else – in my blogs, tweets and emails. Yes, it means JOY! Pressed down and overflowing.  I'm going to run with that. And by the way, the n-dash asked me to tell you that it is feeling neglected – and pointed out that you relied on it heavily the whole time you talked about the ellipsis. Could you please put in a good word on its behalf?

Lori Buntin
Lori Buntin

Thanks to Sloane and Harl for recommending I read your writing!! (two !s)  I think that I embody the spirit of the ellipsis in most of my behavior.  And now that I know the word for that punctuation, and your interpretation of it, I feel vindicated!  I'll be reading more from the redhead to be sure.  Happy Friday!

Cherry
Cherry

Enjoyed your post Reds. I wrote a post the other day where I used an ellipsis; I was in a defiant - I hate rules mood - so rebel that I am, I used 6 periods. Now I have to think about what a semicolon and dashes mean in my life.

Kris M O'Connor
Kris M O'Connor

Ode to the ellipsis.... (four dots - includes the period) It's so funny because the ... IS the sigh for me. I write it a lot - I wonder if I practice it as often? **deep pondering gonna happen**

Leon Noone
Leon Noone

G'Day Erika, Do you know the book, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves; The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss. It's witty, entertaining and valuable. It also contains far and away the best explanation I've ever read about how, when and why to use the punctuation mark that bedevils so many writers: the apostrophe.  Y'know Erika, words are merely vehicles for meaning. Grammar and punctuation are the oil that helps them roll smoothly. Like you say, not much different to life... really. Really? Yeah, really. Years ago, I read a book by a Jesuit priest who worked with severely disadvantaged teenagers and young adults. One of his major concerns was the inability of these people to articulate their issues and problems. He went on to say, "The people with the words have all the power." I've never forgotten that expression. Sort of imposes some obligations on we blogging beasties. You could create a post perhaps... Really? Bloody oath! Slap fun on, Regards Leon

Michele Bunn
Michele Bunn

I have shared this with as many people as I can.  Just an amazing piece of writing and you have captured the meaning of every piece of punctuation just brilliantly and with emotion.  Truly brilliant writing!

The Redhead
The Redhead

Pause, think, move on. <<< this, I like!

Christina McCarthy
Christina McCarthy

Wicked good! (purposeful placement of that punctuation). As an old English teacher, a present writer, and a woman guilty of failing to breathe, baiting, and second guessing, this simply rocks me. "Stop asking for permission to feel the way you feel" " My life needs more ellipses – moments where I stop and take a breath" Words to live by...

thatdamnredhead
thatdamnredhead

I would tell you how much I love this post, but the world might run out of exclamation points.

Mary
Mary

Being of the sanguine personality type, I use exclamation points all over the place!!! I have been scolded by countless writers about how you should let your words do the exclaiming but I just don't care. I love life!  I live in an exclamation point reality! And I am not going to let boring grammarians steal my joy!!! I am happy to find out that an ellipsis only has 3 periods. Because of my bombastic nature, I am apt to add more. I will try to contain myself there. Two weeks ago while in Mexico on vacation, I was reading Persuasion by Jane Austen and noticed that she ended one sentence with the preposition "of." So delighted!!!!!!