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.