Tuesday, June 1, 2010
One Thing Leads to Another (!)
My past two posts led straight to this post. In The Hours there is a line about "an overabundance of punctuation" on a fruit cart's signage. In the last post I accidentally (shamefully!) hit the period key four times instead of three and had to go back and edit the post, just to truncate the hideously elongated ellipses I'd created. Overabundance of punctuation can be quaint in real life, but on the computer screen it offends me violently.
Even those funny vendor signs with their gratuitous exclamation marks and completely unnecessary quotation marks don't use that many marks. Three is the usual upper limit. Three is comfortable to look upon, even if it is somewhat meaningless. Though it could have some meaning -- I think we could handle reading exclamations at three different volumes or intensities. But our minds could hardly hold more than three significantly different intensities of an exclamation like "FREE!" "FREE!!" or "FREE!!!" Three is also a nicely proportionate number, a golden sort of number. And the three-mark exclamation tail rarely exceeds the length of the word it is amplifying. So we accept it.
What is it about the keyboard that makes us over-punctuate beyond that acceptable three-mark limit? It is faster to type a dot or question mark than to write one. Some frantic urge takes hold when the typist realizes the ease with which they can cause extra drama by asking someone a multi-questionmarked question. Again, a triple question mark might look cute. Like someone's teasing -- "Hmmm???" But go beyond that limit, and the marks become hostile! "WHAT????????"
The ubiquitous Facebook status update (which has a very high character limit) is of course my bane when it comes to this crap. People's updates are filled with things like "LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!" and "Why didn't my mom show up tonight????????" Just like the caps lock stick that seems to have affected so many keyboards since the dawn of the internet (or is it a disease of the fingers? lock-pinky?), most punctuation keys now seem to be suffering the same dire affliction. Just imagine if the quotation marks got stuck! That would make less sense than just about anything. Communication disaster lurking right next to the carriage return key.
Finally, I must complain separately (AND AT LENGTH!!! there I go) about the period key. This poor key is more often used to make ellipses than it is to make periods these days, and is therefore probably now known as the "dot" key. Which is not what it was intended for. I think, to save me from catastrophic teeth grinding, we should just put an ellipses key on the keyboard at this point, and be done with it. Then the three-period limit would be there in the binary, and no one could fuck it up. Not many seem to understand that ellipses, when used sparingly, are a perfectly acceptable form of punctuation, but only if you use three periods! A key for that would prevent mile long ellipses tails that routinely burn my eyes out of my skull with their multiplying dots. People use them in overabundance, like the extra question marks, to create more drama I think. But it doesn't make the goddamned "imagined pause" any longer. It just makes it look like you REEEEAAALLLY ("..................") have nothing to say.
A note on well formed ellipses: I have several friends who successfully use ellipses (and only three dots at a time! cheers!) but those dots are not as easily flowing for me. It goes back to the committed writing thing I guess. If I have second thoughts that make a prefatory or postscript disclaimer necessary, so be it. If I have to fall back on parenthetical "asides" to explain myself, so be it. So I may write more, and confuse often with all my parentheses, but for some reason I've made it a personal writing goal to keep ellipses at bay as much as possible. Part of that is because I think they can be powerful when used sparingly. Part of that is because I think Virginia Woolf was absolutely awesome at using them and I have anxiety of ellipses influence. But there are some very good reasons to use them. If you are unsure of something and want to share that you're unsure, if you have not come to a conclusion on something and therefore cannot be committed about what you've written on it, if there is more to say but little time or space, or if you are actually writing one of those above mentioned imagined pauses (of the non-goddamned sort), ellipses are your friend! And they are the friend of those who read them -- if they want to fill in the blank a little, know that you just ran out of time, or be less offended by something you have to say to them that you don't want to hammer away at by ending your sentences with those stark, lonely, naked single periods!
(And here I think of Principle Skinner, whose audience did not know he was resigning until he made his "speech act" sentence official by saying "period" aloud.)
So go forth, fellow keyboard whackers, and whack a little more lightly. Economy of punctuation could possibly make your message so much more meaningful than a string of ten exclamation marks could ever exclaim.