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.


  1. I abuse the ellipses. I admit it!

  2. How funny, that just today in my text to you I did this: !!! and then explained to you that the extra ones were necessary. I hadn't even read your blog yet. But I know of your feelings towards excessive punctuation. And I agree with you.

  3. I too get carried away with ellipses occasionally. I even went through a year where I did four because I was trying to see if I could not use the number 3 for an entire year (very long, bizarre story that ends with I could but didn't want to).

    I have a similar loathing for words in all caps that don't really need to be in all caps. I don't like it when signs yell at me for no good reason (okay, I get it, there's a sale. No need to get overexcited).

    I agree with your theory about how over-punctuation relates to the keyboard. Ease leads to excess.

    I would love to have an ellipses key. Although, you have to wonder if ellipses abusers would just press it multiple times. There's a frightening thought.

    I don't think I use ellipses that much. The only time I used to use them was when a character was completely out of breath. Now I usually just write "s/he said breathlessly". It makes for a greater word count.

    I believe you're making the world a better place, one punctuation at a time ;)

  4. What's hilarious is that if you read any old correspondence from around 1800, say, hardly anyone used punctuation at all since it was annoying to stop with your pen and get going again (that is, except to mark out very strange contractions which also saved time, i.e. "cd." for could or "eveng." for evening, or of course "ms." for manuscript--and even these didn't always have periods). Here's Charlotte Maria Middleton remembering Jane Austen:

    We saw her often She was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children but somewhat stiff & cold to strangers She used to sit at Table at Dinner parties without uttering much probably collecting matter for her charming novels which in those days we knew nothing about

    Can I just say though that I completely agree with everything--everything everything--that you're saying here? The keyboard might be the cause of such a problem, but that's not the keyboard's fault: it's the lazy user's. Or rather, it's the user's and the horrible data-collection-imperative that corporations present to us as "voicing our opinion," which makes us not care about what we write. But, even if this is a symptom of neoliberalism etc. etc., there's no excuse for the completely illegible junk one finds in YouTube discussions, littered with smileys and exclamations and interminable strings of periods, all of which strikingly resembles certain more crudely executed cave-paintings.

    But maybe, if we want to be more positive--since in the following case someone else might at least understand what is being said--it is as if exclamations and smileys have become our idiom, like that of the young-gentleman's dialect so often circulated between Bertie Wooster and the other members of the Drones Club. Here, there are grammatical and telegraphical confusions aplenty, but there's also that impenetrable metonymy and metaphor that only comes with idiom:

    Jeeves: A telegram for you, sir.
    Bertie: [in the bathtub] Oh, well, you'd better read it, Jeeves.
    Jeeves: Very good, sir.
    [clears throat]
    Jeeves: "Come immediately. Serious rift Madeline and Self. Unless you come earliest possible moment prepared lend every effort reconciliation, wedding will be broken off. Reply, Gussie," sir.
    Bertie: Hmm, well, these are deep waters, Jeeves. There is only one thing that I can say now with any certainty, and that is that Gussie has made an ass of himself again.
    Jeeves: There is that possibility, sir.
    Bertie: Have you got your telegraph pad handy?
    Jeeves: Yes, sir.
    Bertie: Right, well send this.
    Jeeves: [clears throat to indicate readiness to receive dictation]
    Bertie: "Fink-Nottle, Totleigh Towers, Totleigh-in-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. Yes, that's all very well. You say 'come here immediately,' but how dickens can I? Relations between Pop Bassett and self not such as to make him welcome Bertram. Would hurl out on ear and set dogs on. What serious rift? Why serious rift? Why dickens? What have you been doing to the girl? Reply, Bertie."

    And yet, I could never laugh at an idiom made of scattered clusters of exclamation points and periods.

  5. That's a really cool example! The over-punctuation and constant acronym usage has become a similar sort of idiom, I think you're right, but for some reason it is just ugly and not funny. Part of the ugliness for me is that it's become unconscious for most people, and pollutes all of their communication. That's partially because of people's laziness, and partially because of the pervasiveness of everything internet. I doubt anyone who didn't work directly with telegraphs all day long ever started talking in the language of telegraphy! It is funny though, that so long ago we were already looking for ways to economize our "characters," or in the case of a telegram, our words.

    But I guess even LOLs can become funny sometimes, if you can remove yourself from the txt/update idiom. Like I mentioned in the post, using one well placed LOL when your friends know you almost never use LOL can be hilarious. It may actually mean (for once!) that someone actually laughed OUT LOUD!

    At work I had to put buttons for Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress on a site. I plopped them in at random and it said WTF. That wouldn't do. I moved them around, and it said FTW. Still no dice! I finally rearranged them to TWF, which I hope doesn't mean anything at all.


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