5 best punctuation marks in literature

Kathryn Schulz offers her list of the greatest punctuation marks in literature, and it is a wonderful one.

3. The ellipses in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” 

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go, and make our visit.

Okay, I concede: The most famous ellipses of all time is not in "Prufrock." It is not in literature at all. It is in the text crawl at the beginning of Star Wars (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”), which I can’t read without hearing that crashing first chord of John Williams’s score, and which I admire even while wishing George Lucas had seen fit to include one more comma. 

But we are here to talk about literature, and, in that domain, Eliot wins the ellipses game. Everything in "Prufrock" is elliptical: those meandering streets, the foglike cat (fog and cats: name me two things more evasive), the hundred revisions, the perfume-inspired digressions — and all this is to say nothing of the five other literal ellipses in the poem: “lonely men in shirt sleeves, leaning out of windows … ”;  “asleep … tired … or it malingers”’ “I grow old … I grow old … ” — aging in those very pauses, it seems. But by far the most yawning chasm in the poem is the first one: What overwhelming question, Eliot? The candidate options, as I see it, are “What is the meaning of life?” and “Hey, so, would you maybe want to have dinner with me sometime?” Existential exposure, romantic embarrassment: Poor Prufrock, no wonder he trails off into that visual stutter.

I'm enthusiastic, but not overly excited

Rob Walker writes of a new punctuation mark proposed by Ellen Susan: the ElRey, a cross between an exclamation point and a period.

The underlying problem is of course overuse of the traditional exclamation mark in the email/social network era, to the extent that the meaning of this venerable symbol has been severely undermined. I can recall coming across advice when I was in college in the late 1980s suggesting that it was permissible to use an exclamation mark once every twenty years or so. Today I probably type one every twenty minutes. I’m not doing so in published work, naturally, but rather in email: “Thanks!” “Congrats!” “See you soon!” It’s not just me. Even as I was writing this paragraph, I got a  note from a highly erudite editor of a widely respected literary/cultural journal: “You are too kind!”

I actually hadn’t been kind to any excitable-making extent in the missive he was responding to. But we both knew that. Consider a non-exclamation-point version of my correspondent’s message: “You are too kind.” That reads dry, chilly, possibly even sarcastic. Which suggests how the function of the exclamation mark has changed: It no longer connotes remarkable enthusiasm; it just signals a sort of general friendliness and baseline cheer, the equivalent of saying “Howyadoin?” in a chipper voice.

I encounter this problem all the time, the phrase ending in a period that ends up looking too cold on the page. It's a curse of the prevalence of sarcasm and irony in this age that just writing something in a plainspoken way is read far too often as  disingenuous.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating the importance of conveying genuine warmth, I've had at least two arguments with friends over the tone of an email message sent with nothing but the friendliest sentiment. I've often wondered if there was a defect in the language itself.

So to compensate, I've tried all the popular alternatives to an exclamation point. Adding a smiley face:

Thanks. =)

Friendly, but it doesn't feel right for me (don't even bring up emoji). I've tried setting it in bold for visual emphasis.


That usually feels too serious, and while I'm usually an even keeled guy, I do feel and wish to convey genuine enthusiasm.

I'm not sure if the ElRey is the solution, but I feel the need for that mark or something like it.

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