George Will

      Truss, a punctuation vigilante, says punctuation marks are traffic signals telling readers to slow down, pause, notice something, take a detour, stop. Punctuation, she says, ``directs you how to read, in the same way musical notation directs a musician how to play'' with attention to the composer's intentions  regarding rhythm, pitch, tone and flow.

     The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been rightly compared to canned laughter. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. But not always. Victor Hugo, wondering how his ``Les Miserables'' was selling, sent this telegram to his publisher: ``?'' The publisher wired back: ``!''

     The dash can be, among other things, droll, as Byron understood:

     He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,   And how to scale a fortress -- or a nunnery.

     Or:

     A little still she strove, and much repented,   And whispering ``I will ne'er consent'' --   consented.

     The humble hyphen performs heroic services, making possible compounds that would otherwise be unsightly (``de-ice'' rather than ``deice''; ``shell-like'' rather than ``shelllike''). And a hyphen can rescue meaning. As Truss says, ``A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public.'' If you are a pickled-herring merchant, you will not want to be called a pickled herring merchant. The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be sneezed at.

     The connection between the words ``punctilious,'' which means ``attentive to formality or etiquette,'' and ``punctuation'' is instructive. Careful punctuation expresses a writer's solicitude for the reader. Of course punctuation, like most other forms of good manners, may yet entirely disappear, another victim of progress, this time in the form of e-mail, cell-phone text messages and the like.

     Neither the elegant semicolon nor the dashing dash is of use to people whose preferred literary style is ``CU B4 8?'' and whose idea of Edwardian prolixity is: ``Saw Jim -- he looks gr8 -- have you seen him -- what time is the thing 2morrow.''

     Oh, for the era when a journalist telephoned from Moscow to London to add a semicolon to his story!


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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