September 24 is National Punctuation Day.
To celebrate this special day, I herewith honor a most humble punctuation mark, the common, everyday… *drum roll*
This homely little fellow is so insignificant it merits only a few small paragraphs in most grammar and style books. It’s kind of a ho-hum topic and just a bit, well, boring.
Willian Zinsser commented about the period in his book On Writing Well:
There’s not much to be said about the period except that most people don’t reach it soon enough.
The period doesn’t even rate any cute nicknames, though it is sometimes called an end stop, a full stop, and a terminal mark. Lately, with the advent of URL addresses, it is called a dot. Those names all sound deadly dull with perhaps the exception of Dot. She sounds kinda cute.
Because it is so common, the period earns the Dullest Punctuation Mark Award. It is, after all, used far more than those other two boorish terminal punctuation marks: the question mark and the exclamation mark.
Only the King of the Punctuation Pack, the comma, beats out the period for title of Most Used Punctuation Mark. Of course, the comma does earn this by cheating. People (wrongly) throw in commas whenever they make a slight pause in their writing.
Whoever started that nasty rumor about putting a comma in whenever you pause needs to be hung up by their toes. Imagine the poor non-fluent reader who pauses after every word or two. That breathy comma rule only causes distractions and unfairly and artificially punches up the comma count!
But no matter. The period has hidden talents, and that’s the point of this post. This ubiquitous little dot has more power and cleverness than you might imagine.
Traditionally, the period has three jobs, maybe a few more if you want to nit-pick a bit.
- It ends a complete sentence.
Apple Computer started selling its sleek new iPhone 5 this week.
People lined up at dawn to be among the first to buy this new iPhone.
- It ends an indirect question.
Rachel asked Lisa when she purchased her new iPhone.
Isabelle asked her father if she could have his old iPhone.
- It ends a mild command.
Isabelle, turn your iPhone off and do your homework.
- It is used with abbreviations; initials in names; and after Roman numerals, letters, and numbers in outlines.
Okay, so those rules are pretty ho-hum, but let’s take a look at what this common little black speck at the end of a sentence can do when it wants to stir up the action.
It controls time. It controls pace. It controls suspense. It controls drama. It controls tension. It carries emotion.
Did you notice how you slowed down when you read these short sentences? Did you stop to consider each idea? (Yes, I agree. I overused the short sentences here to make a point. You might not want to wear out this technique in your best-selling novel.)
The shortest verse in the Bible carries these features (pace, drama, tension, emotion) in two strong words and a period.
Jesus wept. John 11:35
A period can speed up your reading and writing, and it can slow it down. Used effectively, a writer can hold you in suspense just by making a sentence longer, putting the subject and verb at the end, and delaying the period. (Of course, selection of words is crucial, too.) This type of sentence is called, guess what?, a periodic sentence. You just don’t know what is going to happen until you get to the very end of the sentence. Here’s an example from a song I used to sing in elementary school many years ago (not telling how many years ago that was!).
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.
Here’s my little long-eared poochy friend to demonstrate how to show emotion (irritation and determination) by using periods. You can read more about him and his fellow pooches in the annual Ocean City Doo Dah Parade here.
You are right. The above example is not a traditional sentence with all those periods. But don’t tell the pooch. He has made an emphatic statement, and he won’t change his mind.
Now a few sticklers out there thought I should mention a few more picky principles for using periods. Just humor them.
1. Put periods inside quotation marks in the U.S. (The Brits put them outside the quotes. Go figure.)
“Isabelle, I told you to turn off your iPhone.”
2. Put only one space after the period at the end of a sentence. (This is for you antiquers who learned to type on a SmithCorona!)
That’s it for now.
How do you use this little power-packed punctuation mark? What’s your favorite punctuation mark?