Every time I write a piece for this blog, my last step is pondering punctuation. I comb through the sentences and scan for details I missed while drafting.
Like Josh’s piece, this top ten centers the parts rather than the whole. Punctuation choice, like word choice, is an element of voice. Each pattern shapes how readers distinguish my voice from all the other writers on this site.
I’ve arranged this top ten in a completely subjective, completely nerdy manner: how excited am I to write with it? Do I sigh, cheer, or just type and move on? Below each description are the number I’ve used in this piece, and the number I’ve used in my two years at the post calvin so far. (The spreadsheet breakdown is here if you want the nerdy stats.)
Some of these punctuation marks are mundane, the ordinary stuff of sentence construction. But some are the saffron sparks of writing, the bold decisions that turn a functional sentence into a memorable sentence.
10. Square Brackets [ ]
Bleh. If you’ve never proofread a manuscript, you might not even know what these are called. They’re just the clunky creatures on the right-pinkie side of the keyboard.
Square brackets are the cherry cough syrup of punctuation: never called upon unless absolutely necessary. If I’m adding information inside a quote or typing parentheses within parentheses, fine. But I won’t spend a minute mourning if I need to delete square brackets.
Number in this piece: 2
Number in my history at the post calvin: 2
9. Apostrophe or Single Quote (’)
Once I decide whether or not I’m using contractions, I hardly think about apostrophes. They help my writing dress down a little, and they fight my tendency to be flowery. But I’m never excited about adding an apostrophe.
Number in this piece: 41
Number in my history at the post calvin: 369
8. Question Mark (?)
Did you expect to see this common mark so low on the list? They’re lovely in the right rhetorical question or fragmented list, and aren’t they just delightful for emphasis? But don’t they get a little tiring in large amounts? Like a swarm of insistent toddlers?
Number in this piece: 8
Number in my history at the post calvin: 64
7. Period (.)
Necessary, useful, but not often interesting. Perhaps you’ll notice them at work with a short sentence or a tiny fragment, but most periods are quiet and unassuming, doing their work without much fanfare. Still, you can’t deny the thrill of a long, winding sentence, dense with phrases and clauses, that finally thuds to a conclusion with one tiny dot.
Number in this piece: 66
Number in my history at the post calvin: 1204
6. Exclamation Point (!)
Oooh, something exciting! Something to add a little emphasis, a little personality! Leaping from thrilling to irritating in just a few uses!
Like many other professionals (especially women), I find myself overusing exclamation points to appear friendlier over email. Since I’d hate to sound stiff or cold, I insert the grammatical equivalent of a smile over and over again. Then I stop. I don’t need to be enthusiastic about everything. I’m not Ronald McDonald. Time to dial the numbers down to one or two.
Number in this piece: 5
Number in my history at the post calvin: 34
5. Semicolon (;)
This exotic hybrid is rare and rarely used correctly. Semicolons should bind two closely related thoughts into a united whole, and I’m rarely sure that my ideas are that strongly connected. So I tiptoe around semicolons, wondering if this—maybe this?—is the right moment. I don’t want to become the NASB translation of Paul’s letters, looping strings of sentences into long, unwieldy, semicolon-heavy paragraphs.
Still, a well-placed semicolon can do so much for a piece; it can tie thoughts together even tighter than a colon or an em dash. Here’s to you, semicolon, and may you always be just rare enough to be special.
Number in this piece: 3
Number in my history at the post calvin: 27
4. Colon (:)
You’re a little too formal, sir. Perhaps that results from your longstanding association with the business letter, that bygone standard of the pre-digital world. Or perhaps you’re trying to help us forget the other definition of colon. But oh, you’re handy for big ideas! When I throw in a colon, I’ve transformed the phrase into a more graceful, deliberate animal. Here’s to you, unfortunately named colon: you’re practically perfect for ending a paragraph in style.
Number in this piece: 12
Number in my history at the post calvin: 128
3. Parentheses ()
A few years ago, I rarely typed parentheses. Now I type them all the time. Perhaps I’ve become more cautious (eager to explain myself), or perhaps I’ve become more sarcastic (willing to mock myself). Parentheses can rename a noun or idea; they can hint at what’s hidden or imply a world beyond my words. They’re handy, they’re helpful, and I’m so glad I’ve started using them more.
Number in this piece: 13
Number in my history at the post calvin: 85
2. Comma (,)
Commas are the most common punctuation marks in my writing, even topping the ubiquitous period. But unlike the period, my fondness for commas has not decreased because of their frequency. They can create long, rhythmic, flowing strings of words. They can rename a concept, some idea needing a little more explanation, without bogging down the race to the conclusion. They’re delightful, helpful pieces of punctuation.
Number in this piece: 66
Number in my history at the post calvin: 1471
1. The Almighty Em Dash (—)
My love, my love, my love—my one true love. Poor Emily Dickinson didn’t realize she had offered a grammatical opiate to the poetry-reading masses. As a bookish teenager, I discovered the em dash in Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I started attempting to include an em dash in every sentence. Of course, the em dash is too strong to apply in every possible situation. But it’s so flexible—so eager to take the job of a colon, a comma, or a pair of parentheses.
I need to wean myself from my addiction, and I need to use other punctuation marks more often. Still, I’ll never stop weaving them into my words—I can’t imagine my writing without them.
Number in this piece: 6
Number in my history at the post calvin: 82
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.