The 5 best punctuation marks in literature

Schulz: The 5 best punctuation marks in literature
The muse gets all the press, but here’s a fact: Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks. It’s 1 a.m., you’ve got a 5,000-word piece due the next day, and for the last twenty minutes you’ve been deliberating about the use of a semicolon versus a period in a single sentence. (But should it be two sentences? Twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes … ) As a rule, the effect of all that obsession is subtle, a kind of pixel-by-pixel accretion of style. Once in a while, though, a bit of punctuation pops its head up over the prose, and over the prosaic, and becomes a part of a tiny but interesting canon: famous punctuation marks in literature.

This is a fabulous list, though far too short. (It’s got me worrying over my own punctuation now? Could that comma have been a dash? Do I overuse them?)

1. The parentheses in Nabokov’s Lolita

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”

The sentence goes on — for 84 more words, eleven commas, one colon, one semicolon, and another set of parentheses. But the reader, like Humbert Humbert’s unlucky mother, stops dead. Nabokov is a daredevil writer, and often a florid one, but what he shows off here is unbestable economy. Like the lightning inside it, this parenthetical aside is swift, staggering, and brilliant. It is also Lolita (and Humbert) in miniature: terrific panache containing terrible darkness.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art and design, data, education and technology.