Brevity’s Guide to Holiday Punctuation

December 10, 2019 § 7 Comments

As the season approaches, you may want to notify your family, friends, and colleagues that you’ve been wealthy, successful, powerful and loved this year. Or at least didn’t fail as badly as it was suggested you would with that MFA in Creative Writing. (I am totally on the track to my own parking permit in the Remote Lot and teaching six adjunct classes a semester instead of seven, so suck it, Aunt Carol!)

Hence, the holiday newsletter. A chance to share those meaningful, intimate moments of your life, dreams, and family with all the people you don’t care about quite enough to send an individual card. It’s also a chance to show your mastery of the power of a well-chosen word or a scintillating sentence. Even the tiniest punctuation mark can convey worlds of meaning, and at gatherings of rivals and relatives, punctuation can spice up the most pedestrian conversation. Whether in writing or speech, herewith is your armor for the season—wear it wisely.

Apostrophe: A properly placed apostrophe is a symbol of your membership in the bourgeoisie. Sure, Cousin Ahmed owns a regional chain of successful halal butchers. But a gentle suggestion about his “lamb chop’s” sign demonstrates the value of your years of grammatical training. Try not to describe it as a “grocer’s apostrophe”—that’s just gauche.

Question Mark: A powerful deflector for all arguments. Best coupled with a distant look and a humble reference to one’s own virtue. For example, “Oh, Uncle Jim-Bob, did you mention something political? I was just thinking about whether to spend Boxing Day donating blood or working at the Habitat for Humanity project. Which would you pick?”

Interrobang: You just have to know what it is, then watch for a chance to drop it into conversation. Won’t your co-workers eyes widen when you suggest ending the company Secret Santa email with one of these bad boys!?

Ellipses: The magician of implication. Use it to suggest you couldn’t possibly list every wonderful thing in your world right now. After our trip to Iowa, little Josie won some prizes at the state fair…Jacob joined a few clubs…lots going on! Here, those three tiny dots punch above their weight, handling a fifth-runner-up for Quilting: Beginners Single Patch and the weekly Scared Straight meetings with ease.

With fellow writers, you may need to bring out the big guns. Enjoying a holiday book-gathering, but the conversation has started to flag? Bust out your opinion on the Oxford Comma. Once you mention the strippers, Stalin and JFK, the party takes care of itself.

Finally, remember to always take your notebook to holiday dinners. Then, when Aunt Carol asks “Do any memoirs actually sell, I mean, if they aren’t by celebrities?” frown distractedly, scribble, and ask her “Can you repeat that please? It’s perfect for Chapter Three…”


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for more mild humor and devastating punctuation.


Blueberry, Fish, Comma

June 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

We had about 260 visitors to the Brevity blog yesterday, a lowish number because we haven’t posted much in the last few weeks (the quarter is just wrapping up here in academic Ohio), but we did notice that blueberries have been popular, at the Farmer’s Market, and as a search term leading more people to this blog than any other search engine entries.  Odd.  blueberries. Followed by fish and comma.

Who Googles “comma”?

Or for that matter, “Toast”?  Looking for a recipe?

Some years back, Brevity contributor Lori Jakiela had a sharp and witty Modern Love essay in the NY Times mentioning the term “sex chair,” and for a while that was our most popular search term.

Blueberries feel like progress.



Good Comma

April 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

It was our good karma to run across two thoughtful acknowledgments of the humble comma in the past 24 hours, and so we share them both, anon:

PICO IYER, In Praise of the Humble Comma:

A world that has only periods is a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps and flats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. A comma, by comparison, catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretion of a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table.

TIM O’BRIEN, from the Big Think Interview:

It’s forgotten by readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in the alphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting in my underwear, day after day, year after year.  I use 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And out of that, characters come and moral quandaries are explored.  But in the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling with A, B, C, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

We Really Really !!! Like This Essay on Punctuation !!!

May 1, 2009 § 1 Comment


The joy of exclamation marks!

exclamation-0011… exclamation marks – those forms of punctuation derided by the funless and fastidious – are making a comeback, thanks to an internet renaissance that is bleeding over into every form of written communication.

Once it was bad form to end a paragraph with an exclamation mark. Now it’s borderline obligatory. Once it was enough to put a sign on your door: “Back in five minutes.”

Now, without the flourish of an exclamation mark, that sign lacks verve or at least zeitgeisty voguishness. Go figure!

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