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.

10. {} Braces

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

9. … Ellipsis

Not three pe­ri­ods. See the dif­fer­ence?

(ellipsis) (three pe­ri­ods)

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

8. | Pipe

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.

7. & 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.

6. * 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:

Source Code Pro asterisk

I don’t know why, but it makes me smile every time.

5. » 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.

4. ¢ 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.

3. § 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.

2. ¶ Pilcrow

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:

Pilcrows in multiple fonts

1. ? 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.