Top Ten Punctuation Marks

I like punc­tu­a­tion marks. Why? Well…maybe be­cause they shape lan­guage so much while go­ing mostly un­no­ticed. Maybe be­cause they’re never spo­ken* and their names are un­known to lay­men, giv­ing them a mys­te­ri­ous air. Prob­a­bly just be­cause they look nice. Here’s my fa­vorite ten, from 10 to 1.

Honorable Mentions

÷ Obelus

/ Solidus

How cool are the names “obelus” and “solidus”? An­swer: very.

{} Braces

[More grace­ful than stodgy brack­ets.] (More re­fined than the com­mon paren­the­ses.) {Braces are the Au­drey Hep­burn of the punc­tu­a­tion world.}


Not three pe­ri­ods. See the dif­fer­ence?

... (three pe­ri­ods)

What do you mean, what dif­fer­ence does it make? Pis­tols at dawn, sir!


I don’t re­ally use the pipe. I’m not re­ally sure what the pipe is for. But I feel safer know­ing the pipe is there in case I ever need it.

& Ampersand

So the name “am­per­sand” comes from when “&” was in­cluded at the end of the al­pha­bet, so you would say, “X Y Z, and, per se, ‘and’” be­cause if you said “X Y Z and ‘and’” it would sound awk­ward, and so the Latin phrase “per se” was added…and then it was ab­bre­vi­ated over time…part of the al­pha­bet…fine, I’ll stop. Any­way, look at that swoop! Chic.

* Asterisk

Some re­fer to the as­ter­isk as the “splat”, which, though lack­ing re­spect, is still pre­ferrable to “asterick”. (To those “as­t­er­ick”-say­ers: please note the sec­ond “S”. And please note my stern dis­ap­proval.) My fa­vorite as­ter­isk is the one in the type­face Source Code Pro: * I don’t know why, but it makes me smile every time.

» Guillemet

My col­lege Eng­lish 101 pro­fes­sor men­tioned that she used this sym­bol when tak­ing notes to in­di­cate a de­f­i­n­i­tion. That ad­vice is the sin­gle-most life-chang­ing ad­vice—re­lated to note-tak­ing—I have ever re­ceived (thanks Mrs. Twigg!). Just one rea­son the dash­ing guillemet de­serves a more promi­nent spot in our lan­guage.

¢ Cent sign

What makes the cent sign so beau­ti­ful? Is it the sub­lime com­bi­na­tion of curve and straight? The swelling of nos­tal­gia for the days of news­pa­pers and horse-drawn car­riages and top hats? The re­minder of the Ho­r­a­tio Al­ger-es­que rags-to-riches tales which have in­spired our na­tion since its found­ing? What­ever the rea­son, it oc­cu­pies a spe­cial place in my heart.

§ Section sign

It’s a crime that the sec­tion sign is not seen in more lit­er­a­ture. We’ve sac­ri­ficed the sec­tion sign and its mi­lieu for the sake of clar­ity, of con­cise­ness. In­stead of “ch. 3, § 102(a)(1), para. 4, subp. 13” we use the ba­nal, me­chan­i­cal, and sen­si­ble “1.3.1”. But at what cost to our souls? The sec­tion sign is over­wrought, ar­chaic, pre­ten­tious…and won­der­ful.


Ah, the pil­crow; know to­day chiefly as Mi­crosoft Word’s for­mat­ting marks icon. Best named of all punc­tu­a­tion. But mere words will not suf­fice, so I give to you a mon­tage of pil­crows:

? Question mark

Un­like its worka­day brother the pe­riod, the ques­tion mark does not wear out its wel­come with overly-fre­quent vis­its. Un­like its melo­dra­matic sis­ter the ex­cla­ma­tion mark, it does not stay out all night par­ty­ing and then bang around the house ob­nox­iously when ar­riv­ing home. The ques­tion mark is the cat that you al­most for­get is liv­ing with you; it oc­cu­pies a happy medium, fa­mil­iar but not con­stantly pre­sent.

Its func­tional pre­ci­sion is matched by its form. The curves of the ques­tion mark speak of mys­tery, of the great un­known, of the rid­dles we pon­der on stormy nights. The ques­tion mark by­passes the mind and the heart, and speaks di­rectly to the soul. It stands alone, not in the dusty li­brary of Te­dium or atop the moun­tain of Nar­cis­sism, but in the grey al­ley­way of Am­bi­gu­ity, dimly lit by the flick­er­ing lamp­light of Truth. The ques­tion mark is not a king or a fool or a work­man. In the King­dom of Punc­tu­a­tion, the ques­tion mark is the grand vizier, the power be­hind the throne, con­tent to rule from the shad­ows.

The ques­tion mark works its craft with poise and panache. What more could you ask from a bit of punc­tu­a­tion? ∎

* Well, al­most never.

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