A friend of mine once went out with a girl who could not end a sentence. I’m not saying she was a blabbermouth (she actually seemed quite shy); her problem was one of punctuation. Not the sort of flagrant disregard for it that would see her hunted down and tasered silly by Lynn Truss, this was a more subtle - and yet quite profound - flaw.
Basically, texts would arrive on his mobile, posing fevered questions like “What time shall we meet!”, while follow-ups would see her claiming to be “really looking forward to it?”
It was bit confusing until we worked out what was going on. It seemed as though this poor girl was trapped in a state of flux, constantly flitting between feelings of extreme excitement and anguished confusion. And always at the least appropriate moments.
“You’re a really great guy?”, enquired one missive, followed by some things about phone bills which I won’t go into here. It got me thinking: isn’t it interesting how much a sentence’s meaning can be altered just by the shape of the squiggle you put at the end of it?
(NB. If you answered ‘No’ to that, STOP READING NOW. You have been warned).
For example, I may wish to inform some people, via, say, my Facebook status update, that I am about to embark on a visit to the local convenience store. I have three options. If I am really not that bothered about my imminent shopward stroll, I may wish to impart news of it followed by a full-stop:
“Daniel is going to the shop.”
The full-stop is like a graphological shrug. Emotionless, it conveys nothing. That is left for the preceding words to take care of. Sometimes it might be used to transmit a deadpan sense of underwhelming, but not often, and only by sarcastic bastards.
If I am really looking forward to my upcoming journey, I could inform people of it with the aid of an exclamation mark:
“Daniel is going to the shop!”
Clearly, this would denote a level of mental instability on my part. It is impossible to get that excited about something so mundane. And yet, if Facebook is anything to go by (and it has to be said that it probably isn’t), people are routinely amazed by the most ordinary of occurrences, and choose to show this with a freethinking approach to exclamation marks.
This makes simple status updates like “…is going for lunch” seem either tragically overenthused or, as I like to imagine, more like impassioned, Braveheart-style cries for independence than fluffy bits of webinfo. You will never take away my right to Subway!
Other exclamofans include weekly TRUE!!! STORIESSSS!!!! magazines, which feature headlines like “Why I Married My Murderer!” or “Brutally Beaten By My Sexy Fitness Instructor!!!” Next time you‘re in a shop just look at them. I saw one that actually had more exclamation marks on it than it did words. Sorry, I mean, words!
(FYI exclamation marks, like full-stops, can also be used sarcastically - “I’m loving this Richard Dawkins lecture!” - but I might as well tell you right now that anyone who is enough of an arsehole to do that is really not worth bothering with as a person).
Anyway, back to the point. If my impending consumerist voyage fills me with existential angst and a profound confusion, I might like to express some of that via the use of a question mark:
“Daniel is going to the shop?”
This suggests that I can’t quite believe my actions. Maybe I’m an megarich celebrity who normally has other people to do that kind of thing for him, or a Sam Tyler-like time traveller who wakes up one day to find himself… on the way to the… shop? (But not in 1973).
There is a dark and mysterious fourth option. The comma. Often brought about as a result of a typo, this sits at the end of the sentence, hinting at further possibilities but, tantalisingly, not revealing them.
“Daniel is going to the shop,”
This is probably the most frustrating punctuation choice of them all. A reader of this sentence would be left wanting to know what I planned to do upon arrival at said shop, or where I was intending to go afterwards. Despite my cheeky hint at further bean-spilling, ultimately, they would be left unsatisfied.
I think the point I am trying - and, let’s face it, failing - to make is this: let’s hear it for the little guys. Punctuation marks can have as profound an effect on the meaning of a sentence as the words within it. They are the cornerstone of every utterance, the icing on the lexical cake. Quiet, dignified heroes. A world without punctuation would be like a jellyfish without an outer membrane: messy and unsettling. Let’s look after our membrane.