Punctuation that packs a punch

Too much punctuation in a sentence is asking for trouble.

I continue to learn from Copy Editor, the newsletter. Its Tip of the Week e-mail a little while ago included some exchanges on the fine points of how to punctuate questions within questions and exclamations within exclamations. Some of it was for advanced users only, but it confirmed my sense that we're in an era of punctuation proliferation.

For instance: Did he just yell "Where's my coat?"?

Do we really need two question marks there? After a little back and forth, Copy Editor concluded no, we don't. One will do, and it's the one at the very end. Whew. That's a relief. I'm glad someone's holding the line. There's a logical argument for two: Both the quoted sentence and the sentence as a whole are questions. But two is too much.

Similarly: Did he just yell "Watch out for the goat!"? On its own, "Watch out for the goat!" surely qualifies for the "exclam" or the "bang." But within the larger sentence, something's got to go.

"Strong punctuation" is the term Copy Editor uses to refer to the question mark and exclamation point.

Exclamation points, in particular, are the typographical equivalent of those Sichuan peppers that you count going into the wok and count coming out of the wok, because you don't want to have a guest bite into one and have to call the fire department.

But it doesn't help that so many organizations and titles include exclamation points nowadays – Yahoo! being example No. 1. Earth First! is another. Sometimes, though, top brass will veto a "screamer." That's evidently what happened when a design firm tried to interest one of the national news broadcasters in a logo incorporating an exclamation point. "I can't use that" – the exclamation point – "on the air for the assassination of a president," the top executive said. End of discussion.

Of course, Broadway has had a long run of hits titled with a single word plus exclamation: "Fiorello!" "Oliver!" And before that, "Oklahoma!" More recently there's been "Gutenberg! The Musical!" (Two of them!)

Too much punctuation is asking for trouble, and that goes double for titles, organizational names, and the like. A little background here: In publishing, there's always an occasional need for writers and editors working on an article to signal to those downstream that, yes, this quirky spelling is correct, or yes, that's what the guy really said. Sometimes this was done with a penciled notation on a proof – "OK" or, in fancy-schmanzy pretend Latin "cq." That latter notation has a mysterious background, but it was – is? – used to signal "OK as is – no further fact-checking needed." In any case, the trick was to communicate the quirky spelling or questionable quote while ensuring that the little note itself doesn't appear in print.

Electronic editing systems generally have something called "notes mode." It lets editors leave little messages to one another in the text of a story in progress. Those notes are supposed to be invisible to the typesetting equipment and so never appear in print. I don't recall that this has ever let us down. But I remember a time when another publication wasn't so fortunate, and the problem was with the title of a performing group.

I was in the newsroom on a slow Sunday afternoon, paging through the feature section of one of our metro dailies, when I ran across mention of the performing group. Its name was an unpronounceable tangle of letters and punctuation marks, including exclamation marks. (Especially exclamation marks!) It reminded me of one of those strings of random keyboard characters long used in the comic strips of family newspapers to represent profanity.

And the whole mess ended with the letters "cq." It was obvious that some junior person had "fact-checked" it, appended the extra letters to mark it "good to go" – and whatever notes-mode protections were in place failed. The whole thing appeared in print, fact-checker's sign and all.

At that moment they were done in by punctuation that packed too much punch.

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