Whatever 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.
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.
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.