May 23, 2007

Punctuation, now with heightened indifference!

Proposals to supplement the arsenal of English punctuation have historically been about as successful as proposals for epicene pronouns — which is to say, not successful at all, despite the enthusiasm of the proposers. Perhaps the best-known of the failed punctuation experiments is the interrobang, devised by an ad executive in 1962 to indicate a mixture of query and surprise by fusing a question mark with an exclamation point. The latest quixotic concoction, from Mark Healy of the Toronto-based firm Torque Market Intelligence, is the pomma point, an indicator of "mild excitement" that looks a bit like an exclamation point that can't be bothered to stand up straight. You can watch a slide show where Healy makes the case for filling this niche in our punctuation ecology:

No punctuation mark currently exists in the English language which connotes a feeling of mild joy, vague happiness, or heightened indifference. ... A new punctuation mark is required for this new age where we are defined by our lack of true highs and lows.

Thanks to Nancy Friedman and Martha Barnette for the pointer to the pomma point. A commenter on Friedman's blog Away With Words was reminded of a recent poem by Paul Violi that calls for a new punctuation mark to accommodate the surprise of defeated expectations:

Appeal to the Grammarians
by Paul Violi

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Violi.

(As a New Jersey boy, I find it mildly irritating that Weehawken should serve as the terminus for the failed odyssey Violi imagines. It's possible that he is making a historical allusion to Alexander Hamilton's notorious Weehawken disappointment, but more likely he chose that particular place name because it's in New Jersey and it sounds funny — much as Bugs Bunny was once disappointed to learn that the penguin he was escorting to the South Pole actually hailed from Hoboken.)

The inverted exclamation point that Violi would like "the grammarians" (who?) to repurpose has already been pressed into various typographic uses, most famously in Spanish to introduce exclamatory sentences. A few years ago Josh Greenman in Slate proposed that the inverted exclamation point (or a subscripted version thereof) should be used in English as a "sarcasm point." "My fellow Americans," Greenman declaimed, "we need to embrace a new punctuation mark — one that embraces the irony and edge of contemporary conversation and clarifies rather than condenses or confuses." As it happens, the inverted exclamation point is already used to convey sarcasm in another writing system. The Ethiopic script has a mark known as Temherte Slaq, used for sarcastic purposes in editorial cartoons and the like. The Unicode representation of the punctuation mark is evidently under debate among Ethiopian scholars (see: "A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646," PDF, HTML cache).

In a similar vein, French and Dutch writers have toyed with irony marks, though none have caught the public fancy. Not that literary experimentation is necessarily a dead end: the impulse for emoticons can be found germinating in Ambrose Bierce's snigger point and Vladimir Nabokov's supine round bracket. And emoticons, though not punctuation marks in the traditional sense, do represent the most successful extension of English typography in modern times, much to the chagrin of the Lynne Trusses of the world. (In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss calls emoticons "a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly ... designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function.") The pomma point may never catch on, but millions of online communicators would easily recognize another symbol of heightened indifference (if not mild excitement)... :-|

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 23, 2007 03:30 PM