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A couple of months ago I was chatting online, talking books on Goodreads with a few other readers, when someone mentioned how much she loved hyphens. Hyphens were her favorite punctuation mark, she said, because they were the “sexiest.”
“You’d think that I totally have a thing for commas,” she posted, “but no, for me it’s all about the hyphens. Ooooh-la la.”
Another reader spoke of her love for dashes, describing them as “strong, powerful, and able to connect disparate ideas or clarify existing ones.”
The hyphen-lover later chimed in: “Just the word … dash. Dash! DASH! It’s exciting, right? DASH!”
As a writer I’ve always been nuts about punctuation, but until then, I never thought of hyphens or dashes, or any other punctuation mark, as “sexy.” Which led me to ask myself, Carrie Bradshaw-style: Which punctuation mark is the sexiest?
I immediately threw out that question on a new thread, and was gratified to discover that for a lot of people, passion for punctuation runs high.
The reader with the thing for hyphens was the first to respond.
A hyphen, she wrote, “makes two things completely ordinary, and makes it sound kinda humorous … And what’s sexier than a sense of humor?” Her comment made me reach for Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, where I had little trouble finding evidence of what she meant.
“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch,” Prince Hal lovingly hurls at Falstaff, and Falstaff, not to be outdone, retorts: “You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish.” Thanks to those hyphens, it’s male bonding at its funniest.
Another reader put in a word for the comma. “There’s something about the beauty of the comma,” she wrote. “It sits slightly under the word and the things it can do for the flow of a sentence and the words and the cadence just make it even better.”
Another reader, backing her up, provided a photograph of a T-shirt entitled “Comma Sutra,” featuring pairs of commas nuzzling up to each other in a variety of eye-popping positions. I’m afraid I can’t do justice to commas here—they do too much—but at any rate, now that I’ve seen that T-shirt, I’m not sure if I can look at commas the same way again.
“I just love them,” remarked a reader on one of my favorite punctuation marks, the semicolon, and I couldn’t agree more. How can anyone resist them? Semicolons are tough. Semicolons have a physique. A semicolon makes me think of the awkward cute guy standing at the edge of the dance floor, waiting to be asked to dance but never getting asked because everyone is too afraid to approach them. I turn again to Shakespeare, whose Julius Caesar uses one of these musclemen to block his “valiant” self from the “cowards” in the opposing clause: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” If a comma sits under the word, the semicolon lifts it up—they’ve got the brawn to handle big clauses such as Caesar’s.
But semicolons are pipsqueaks next to the dominatrix of punctuation, the colon—a little formal, maybe, but a mark I always approach with awe. I love sentences in which the writer opens the sentence with a proposition, promises a payoff with a colon, and then delivers handsomely on the promise. What better way to illustrate this than with a quote from one of the toughest women in recorded history? “Though God hath raised me high,” said Queen Elizabeth I in her famous Golden Speech of 1601, “yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves.” Oh, the glory, the glory.
I was sorry not to hear more from the reader who loved the dashes. In some ways I find dashes tougher to use than colons, since they usually express a wide range of emotions, but when they’re used well, they’re unforgettable.
There’s the last line of dialogue from “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Or The Great Gatsby, in which Daisy Buchanan uses a dash to speak a poignant truth about herself: “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”
But neither Poe nor Fitzgerald can touch Emily Dickinson, a poet who, for all her reclusiveness, seems to dash all over the place: “Until We met the Solid Town—/No One He seemed to know—/And bowing—with a Mighty look—/At me—The Sea withdrew—” Better than any other writer, I think, Dickinson harnessed the power, the mystery of the dash. And in my book, mysteriousness is always sexy.
But it’s one thing to call a punctuation mark sexy. Can any one of them be called the sexiest?
For you, maybe the sexiest punctuation mark isn’t even one of the punctuation marks I talked about. Maybe you’ve got the hots for the period, the question mark, the quotation mark, the apostrophe; or maybe you’ve got a crush on the parenthesis, which often provides a tryst from the slog of some interminable sentence. Or maybe, even, it’s the exclamation point! So many punctuation marks, so many choices to tap into the life-beat of prose. How to choose the sexiest, then?
Me, I’ve stopped trying. When it comes to punctuation, I always play the field.