Perfect Punctuation

January 18, 2014 | 8

Punctuation can be as important as the prose. At Vulture, Kathryn Schultz discusses the five best punctuation marks in literature. The list includes this delightful parenthetical from Lolita, “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”

is an associate editor for The Millions and an editor in Atlanta. She tweets at @temalone.


  1. Punctuation marks have unique personalities, and if they formed a large dysfunctional family, forced to gather together for some sort of mandatory event would be:

    a.) Parenthese: Passive aggressive, snipey aunt who throws cold water over everyone’s good news with stink bombs of insults surrounded by insincerely-voiced congratulations.

    b.) Em-dash: Uncle returned from extended tour of English-teaching in Thailand. Furtive eyes, caught kicking the cat in the pantry when his brandy runs out and blizzard prevents run to “packie” for more.

    c.) Ellipses: Cousin with light brown hair, light brown clothes, light brown eyes. No one can ever remember her name. Has never been able to complete a whole sentence at dinnertime without someone else interrupting her.

    d.) Colon: Grandfather, 42 year employee of Government Printing Office, everything he says is an official-sounding pronouncement about weather. Is actually recalling the 1978 Blizzard and thinks it is still 1978. Found wearing several Red Sox baseball caps at the same time and tinkering with the furnace in an alarming manner.

    e.) Period: Father, 26 year employee of Government Printing Office, all pronouncements are official-sounding. With add additional period and become a colon by 2035.

  2. Punctuation Alert!

    Today (12/4/2014) the Washington Post reviewed “Suspended Sentences – Three Novellas” by Patrick Modiano. The first, “Afterimages,” describes an odd, furtive character who disappears one day without a trace:

    “As the narrator remarks, ‘Of all the punctuation marks, he told me, ellipses were his favorite.”

    Moe Murph
    Still Favors the Em-dash for Characterization

  3. Whoa, Moe Murph — Packie? Red Sox caps? Blizzard of 1978? Furnace??? I hear the siren call of the Bay State. If you ah not from they-ah, I am wicked impressed with the authenticity of yaw voice. A tad dispirited that I still don’t know what an em-dash is (perhaps one should have been used above?) but loved your dysfunctional family, especially the ellipses . . .now get outta he-ah . . .

  4. @priskill

    Ha Ha… yes, I am from Boston. This is not quite “my” family, but a couple of the bits and pieces fit, including my poor grandfather and his furnace fiddling and multiple hat wearing at the end of his life. Also, our entire family does tend to all speak at the same time and we do have one cousin who never can get a word in edgewise. And she is quite “beige” in affect. :)

    The uncle, dad, and the aunt are bits and pieces cobbled together from my fetid swamp of a brain…

    If you want to read some wonderful examples of Em-dash, read the poetry of Emily Dickinson! The Em-dash creates a wonderful sense of motion and ease.

    (I laughed out loud at the Modiano review today!)

    Best Regards, Moe Murph

  5. @Moe Murph Well, I loved it (that poor and beige cousin!) and thank you for clarifying things — I thought the Belle of Am’erstt just used plain old dashes — I’m a big dasher, myself, but mostly from indecision regarding commas and such — as always, you entertain and elucidat, MM!

  6. @priskill

    Just a bit more elucidatin’…..

    My personal favorite for grammar guides is “The Deluxe Transitive Grammar: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” – Karen Elizabeth Gordon (Pantheon; Revised Edition – 8/10/1993).

    The title alone makes it awesome, but the contents are wonderful as well.

    Moe Murph

  7. Oh Bosh! Correct Title:

    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed”

  8. @Moe Murph — I am all of the above! I, E, & D — I will look for this — vampires and serial commas in the same title ! Thank you, MM!

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