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If punctuation marks were people

Gary Nunn
In her recent book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris, who
writes for the New Yorker, does something groundbreaking with punctuation.

She makes it interesting.

Exclamation marks, she writes controversially, are “a bit grim, even worrying”. The asterisks
used in swearwords (which you’ll find in most other news titles, but not the Guardian – its style
guide is proudly free of the priggish, prudish expletive-asterisk) are “little firecrackers inside the
words”. The superfluous hyphen, inserted by the copy editor, in Moby-Dick “stuck like a
harpoon in Melville’s famous title”. Semicolons are a form of over-educated punctuation:
“commas with vibrato”.

With this in mind, I thought I’d take her take her lead and bring some fun into punctuation. By
personifying it. This will, of course, negate our perceived need for emojis and they will become
redundant once this piece is published.

If each punctuation mark were a person …

The full stop is the no-nonsense northern matriarch

She doesn’t do garrulous, only concise. Her sentences are short. And to the point. She wouldn’t
recognise a semicolon if it slapped her in the face. No meandering here. That’s for soft
southerners and men with more time on their hands than she has. She is blunt and she is busy.
And her word is final. She is not for turning. You’ll find her on Corrie, or played in a film by
Imelda Staunton or Julie Walters.
The semicolon is disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

Far too refined, articulate and supercilious to resort to exclamation marks, he mansplains his
outrage using semicolons to indicate his intelligence and superiority. All his letters of complaint
are long and handwritten with fountain pen. Each complaint has three clauses and
justifications, which he lays out meticulously. He occasionally underlines for emphasis; but only
when absolutely necessary.

The interrobang is that inappropriate over-sharer we all know

They ask you at work if you got laid at the weekend‽ Or if you’re hungover again today‽

the lower case-when-it-should-be-in-caps is the bearded hipster

This hipster is way too cool and defiantly radical and Silicon-Valley busy to capitalise the
beginning of sentences or proper nouns. Or even his own name; he feels he’s rejecting his own
white male privilege by shunning the formal respect usually afforded by the caps lock button at
the beginning of one’s name. But he’s like a total socialist, yeah, so other names don’t get
capitalised either; everyone gets treated equally. The lower case i looks so nonchalant for his
first-person singular accounts, but he had to fight autocorrect with three increasingly aggressive
attempts to make it look effortlessly uncapitalised. Don’t tell anyone.

The ampersand is the verbose backpacker

Oh my god like it was just so totally amazing & it wasn’t even that expensive & that’s like really
important because I’m on my gap year & my money is fast running out & like I swear to God I’ll
just have to eat McDonald’s everywhere I go soon & that’s not the point of a cultural gap year
& I can’t wait to go tubing in Laos, can you?

The unnecessary quotation mark is the greengrocer

Lovely “apples” and “fresh” bananas.

The square brackets are the pedants who just wish you’d speak with more clarity
Call them OCD if you want to, but they need to report what you said with clarity. And when you
didn’t say what they wanted you to say, or exactly how they expected you to say it, they get
picky. They insert [square] brackets, to differentiate from the pedestrian but curvy parenthesis,
to indicate that they’ve inserted this word on your behalf because you’ve clearly never learned
English properly and need all the help you can get, what?
The ellipsis is the person who can’t decide what they want for dinner when you’re at your
You are hangry (hungry-angry) and surely your friend can see that. But they still proceed with
all the options – well there’s Mexican … or next door there’s pizza … down the road there’s
Indian … or around the corner is Chine … ANYWHERE! ANYWHERE! Is all you can scream. So,
you finally settle on the Chinese. When the waiter comes to take the order, they can’t decide if
they want chicken … or beef … or special fried rice … or ….

The double quotation marks: the most sarcastic sod you know
Because every time they want to be “helpful”, they just do that annoying “bunny ear”
gesticulation with their fingers to air-quote the word that makes them oh-so-sarcy and oh-so-
irritating. Very “clever”.

Which punctuation would you personify?