“The Secret Emotional Lives of 5 Punctuation Marks”
By: Arika Okrent
1. THE ANGRY PERIOD
What could be simpler than period? One little dot that ends a sentence, a few pixels. But lately, the period has become a bit more than that. As Ben Crair noted at The New Republic, when it comes to online chatting and texting, the period has come to mean “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.” Since digital communication is more like an ongoing conversation, people usually leave off final punctuation and just hit send. In that context, a period starts to look a little abrupt and aggressive. A study by Idibon adds support to the idea of the negative period . . .
2. THE SINCERE EXCLAMATION POINT
The exclamation point has long been seen as a marker of loudness or excitement, but its emotional range is more complex than that. In digital communication it has become a sincerity marker. In an email, where it might seem a little too informal to just leave off end punctuation, the exclamation point serves as a solution to the problem of the angry period. This comes off dry, cold, and little sarcastic: “I am looking forward to the meeting.” But with the exclamation point—“I am looking forward to the meeting!”—it is warm and sincere. It adds not a shout, but a genuine smile.
3. THE COY, AWKWARD ELLIPSIS
The ellipsis, a row of three dots, stands for an omitted section of text. But much can be conveyed by omission. It asks the receiver of the message to fill in the text, and in that way is very coy and potentially flirty. “Pizza…” Is that an invitation? An opinion? It sits there waiting for a response. This brings awkwardness into the equation, and the ellipsis (or even the written words “dot dot dot”) is another way to say “well this is awkward.” The conversation is not over, but someone has to make a move. And the clock ticks uncomfortably on, dot…by dot…by dot…
4. THE DRAMATIC ASTERISK
Asterisks are meant to be noticed. They hold a place in a text for you so you can go match it up with a footnote or comment. But they also have a theatrical bent that goes beyond simple attention holding and crosses over into acting. As discussed by Ben Zimmer in this Language Log post, asterisks (*ahem*) can set off stage directions (*cough*) that tell you (*looks at watch*) about the emotional states (*yawn*) and attitudes (*stares off*)…sorry, (*vigorously blinks eyes*) where was I? Asterisks. They’re little jazz hands that say, “look what I’m doing!”
5. THE DULL COMMA
Commas have no inner emotional lives. In the words of Gertrude Stein, “commas are servile and they have no life of their own.” Not only that, their dullness can rub off on you. A comma “by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it.” That may sound mean, but the comma really doesn’t care. In order to get out there every day to step between words and generally slow things down, it’s got to have a businesslike attitude.
As a teacher, I’ve relied the most on two books: Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’m posting excerpts from an interview with King wherein he shares his thoughts on teaching writing to teen-agers (middle-schoolers).
Lahey: If your writing had not panned out, do you think you would have continued teaching?
King: Yes, but I would have gotten a degree in elementary ed. I was discussing that with my wife just before I broke through with Carrie. Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.
Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?
King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?
King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!
Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?
King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.
Lahey: Great writing often resides in the sweet spot between grammatical mastery and the careful bending of rules. How do you know when students are ready to start bending? When should a teacher put away his red pen and let those modifiers dangle?
King: I think you have to make sure they know what they’re doing with those danglers, those fragmentary and run-on sentences, those sudden digressions. If you can get a satisfactory answer to “Why did you write it this way?” they’re fine. And—come on, Teach—you know when it’s on purpose, don’t you? Fess up to your Uncle Stevie!
(Source: “How Stephen King Teaches Writing”, The Atlantic)
Your Book Trailers are due today. Please provide the link to your book trailer through this post. Any link submitted after 10 o’oclock tonight (10:00 PM) will be considered late.
Reminders: (1) If you are submitting via YouTube, you must set up your YouTube Channel through your school gmail account. (2) Make sure the privacy setting is made public.
Click here: Book Trailer Link Form
Due: Wednesday, September 10, 2014
You may come in during tutorials and lunch if you’d like to have extra time to complete this.
Prompt 1. Tell us about a time when you were frightened and how you conquered that fear.
Prompt 2. If you had a super power what would it be and why?
Submit your work by clicking on this link.
In case you forgot the “must-haves”, here’s the reminder. You might need none, some, or all of these.
Everyone’s Personal Supplies List:
* (5 Green) 3-pronged folders with pockets — please get the poly or plastic, not the paper
* Flash drive (to back up save your electronic work) ** optional
* Planner (to stay organized)
* (2) Composition Notebooks (for your grammar/stems)
CLASSROOM WISH LIST: I’m requesting the following items that can be used as supplies for the entire class.
* College-ruled Filler Paper
Grade 8, Section 1:
* Blue or black pens
* Crayola Markers or Map Pencils
Grade 8, Section 2:
* Red pens
* College-ruled Filler Paper
You all know that one of the best days in G/T has been our day excursions to TEDxKids. I know that you all have super ideas and stories to share, so here’s an opportunity for a “pursuit”.
I hope you all are having had an adventurous summer, either at home or afar! My summer definitely began to pick up in July.
All summer, I’ve been making notes of what the new school year will bring, and I think this one would be fun to do: http://littlefreelibrary.org/.
See you all very soon,
1. Show book trailer: To Kill a Mockingbird book trailer.
Tom Sawyer: Characterization/County Food Fair
- Choose a character that interests you the most and that you’d like to analyze using STEAL.
- It can be a major character, a minor character, a moral character, or an immoral character.
- The cardstock is for your FINAL, so work on scratch paper.
- As part of the brainstorming process, you will need to look for 5 interesting pieces of text evidence for each letter of the STEAL acronym. That means you will have 25 pieces of interesting and revealing text evidence that allows you to analyse your chosen character.
- These 25 pieces of text evidence should come from throughout the book, not just from one section. These must show or reveal who your character is as a person (STEAL).
- Be sure to include the analysis and the 5 to 7 of the most revealing pieces of text evidence on your cardstock. This must be neatly and creatively done.
- The analysis can be done for each letter or written in paragraph form.
- You will need to illustrate your character. The illustration and the analysis should be all on the front of the cardstock.
“County Food Fair”: Match a Southern dish to your character. For example, if I analyse Huck Finn, I might choose Mississippi Mud Pie to represent him – (layered (multi-dimensional, hard crust (life’s struggles), chocolate (dark), and white (innocence), Mississippi (regional).