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So, there is a giant panda in the room, eating some shoots and leaves, toying with a loaded revolver and with one eye on the exit, wondering which way the sentence is going to pan out. It’s punctuation’s time to shine.

If you ever venture into the muddy waters of social media, the chances are you will have encountered more than a few memes in which people very excitedly point out that a misplaced piece of punctuation has ended with hilarious and/or infuriating consequences.

Most often, it’s a comma, perhaps one that failed to distinguish Nelson Mandela from an 800-year-old demi-god, or an apostrophe, maybe spotted hanging mysteriously over some bargain pears at the greengrocer’s.

It’s easy to forget that such mistakes rarely result in fatal wounding, but if you do want to know about a bit more about the exciting world of paratextual marks and points, you’ve clicked onto the right place.

Texts originally did without punctuation altogether; writers wouldn’t even make the effort to put spaces the words. Today, we find it difficult to read a hashtag #ifitcontainsmorethantwowords, so imagine the problems that some sensible punctuation can help us avoid. (Just ask Susan Boyle about her Twitter album party, if you aren’t feeling squeamish.)

When the ancient Greeks began using dots at various different heights to break up the text, it was only as an instruction how long the people reading it aloud should pause. However, it wasn’t until medieval monks began bashing out copies of the Bible in bulk that punctuation began to find its feet.

Over time, the printing press began to make personal copies of a text affordable, which people could read quietly to themselves. As a result, Aldus Manutius of Venice came up with a standard set of punctuation marks and the game was now about clarifying syntax – a game we are still playing to this day.

Classifications of punctuation marks

There are a few different types of punctuation marks. The groups with the strongest identities, perhaps, are the terminal points – the full stop (.), the question mark (?), and the exclamation mark (!).

In formal writing, these are the only points that will end a sentence. However, if the writing is less formal, often trying to report speech or thoughts, there is also the ellipsis (…), which indicates a trailing off, and the em-dash (—), which shows an interruption. For example, I couldn’t just… fades away, while Why, you little— cuts the sentence off.

If you’re feeling a little less final about your sentence, you can employ the pause points – the comma (,), the semi-colon (;), and the colon (:) – each that little bit more forceful than the last.

These three are sometimes used interchangeably, which can get ugly, but broadly speaking the latter two are used mostly to connect independent clauses. The ellipsis and em-dash can also be pressed into service as pause points in less formal writing, if needed.

Other helpful punctuation marks include the accident-prone apostrophe (‘); quotation marks (“”) and their British cousins, inverted commas (‘’); the slash (/) – or the virgule, as its mum calls it; and parentheses (()), which are a little difficult to render clearly in this list format.

Parentheses always come in pairs and are often referred to as brackets – but, technically, these [ ] are brackets, and they serve a slightly different function, acting as an editorial device to highlight mistakes [sic.], clarifications or changes to quoted text.

Dashes and hyphens

You need a keen eye and a keener sense of grammar to tell the difference between the hyphen (-), the en-dash (–), and the em-dash (—), but they each serve different functions. In British usage, however, the en-dash is widely considered an acceptable substitute for the em-dash, so the latter can seem a little exotic when chanced upon.

Hyphens should only be used in the creation of compound nouns, adjectives, etc. – death-defying mothers-in-law, for example. They can also be used to show a word has been split to wrap it around two different lines in a newspaper: this is called word division.

The en-dash, longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em-dash, should be used to connect numbers, like scores in football matches (1–0 to the Arsenal!) or periods of time (1972–2017). Em-dashes, however, will turn their imaginary hands to several different tasks.

They can stand in for commas (he typed—barely stopping to wipe his fevered yet dignified brow—for over ten hours) or parentheses (his looks could stop traffic—even if it was already at the lights) or even a colon (he was just like she liked her men—silent). They are also used for m—sing bits of w—rds.  You might have noticed that em-dashes don’t have any spaces either side—one the other hand, you might not have.

To avoid confusion, perhaps, only the hyphen appears on your keyboard, although many word processing programs will automatically change a double hyphen to an em-dash. They will also often automatically lengthen your hyphen into an en-dash, if it feels it knows what you meant to type.

British and American differences

As with many things linguistic, the British and American models of punctuation have some differences. For example, while a Brit would probably place single inverted commas before the full stop at the end of a sentence, an American might put their period inside the double quotation marks.

‘Pass me that Lynn Truss book about punctuation, old boy’, the Earl of Britchester instructed.

“You can get off your backside and fetch it yourself,” his Texan cousin replied.

It gets a little weirder when direct quotes contain other quotes, as British English then uses the double marks for the quote-within-the-quote, whereas American English uses the single marks.

‘Then, he told me to “Get off your backside and fetch it yourself”’, complained the Earl.

Hank replied, “He called me ‘old boy’, for crying out loud.”

Aside from this, there are only minor disagreements between the two versions of our common tongue on how best to punctuate titles (Dr. Indiana Jones or Dr Who), decades (Woodstock in the 1960’s or Glastonbury in the 1990s), and time (hot dogs at 5:45 or high tea at 3.15).

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