Most people don't spend much time thinking about punctuation. We're not most people. When properly used, punctuation can enhance the rhythm of your writing or change its meaning entirely. And yet too many people rely on a scant handful of marks to express themselves.
Commas and periods are the bread and butter of punctuation: familiar, safe...and bland. To spice things up, some writers throw in an exclamation point. Sometimes, to the horror of English teachers and proofreaders everywhere, they use more than one in a row. The late Elmore Leonard advised writers: "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." In proofreading parlance, an exclamation point is called a "bang," and the chronic overuse of them, particularly in text messages and emails, has earned the slang term "bangorrhea."
In 2013, a Mental_Floss article extolling "13 Little Known Punctuation Marks We Should Be Using" made the rounds, but although some of them might be useful--the inability of text to convey sarcasm has caused more than one epic misunderstanding--standard keyboards don't offer the "sarcmark" or the interrobang as options. Here are three readily available, and yet sadly neglected, punctuation marks you should start using today.
Semicolon: The semicolon isn't exactly obscure, but how often do you actually use it in everyday writing? Grammar Girl (a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty) says that there are two reasons to add semicolons to your writing: to add variety to your sentence structure and if you want to highlight the relationship between two independent clauses. Remember, an independent clause is a complete thought containing both a subject and a predicate. It can stand on its own as a simple sentence, or it can be combined with another independent clause in a compound sentence.
Compound sentences demonstrate a relationship between the clauses. You can use a comma and a conjunction, but why not shake things up and break out a semicolon instead? Semicolons are the subtler option; they show the relationship without spelling it out the way conjunctions do. For an irreverent, illustrated lesson on semicolons, check out Matthew Inman's comic on The Oatmeal.
Dash: The dash, or em dash, is a brisk piece of punctuation that indicates an abrupt aside. "Think of it as representing the motion your head makes when you quickly look to the side -- a jump in thought, a quick hop to a connected topic," says James Harbeck. Like the parenthesis, it sets apart information that is related but not essential to the sentence. Some writers prefer parentheses over dashes--they do essentially the same thing--but according to Writer's Digest, dashes are much more fashionable. Brian A. Klems notes that the Associated Press Stylebook recommends dashes over parentheses because "They [parentheses] appear jarring, and many news sources don't use them, so material between the curves may be misinterpreted by the reader."
To make a dash in Microsoft Word, you can either type two hyphens or hold down Ctrl, Alt, and the hyphen key on the number pad.
Ellipsis: The ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a tricky beast. In formal writing, its purpose is to indicate missing words in a cited quotation. In informal writing, however, it can be used for trailing off in mid-thought, hesitation, or pausing for dramatic effect. (Think Dr. Frankenfurter purring "antici...pation" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) According to the Chicago Manual of Style, "Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty."
An ellipsis consists of three periods with spaces between them. If one appears at the end of sentence, it should be followed by a fourth period. Word automatically adds spaces between the dots when you type three in a row.
What's your go-to punctuation mark to add some variety to your writing? Let us know in the comments!