Are You a Grammar Guru or Narrative Ninja?

by PR Coach on October 9, 2012

23 unusual punctuation characters

Think you know all about grammar & punctuation?

Your grammar called and she thought it was time for a serious punctuation lesson. Where else but The PR Coach can you learn about 23 crazy PR characters guaranteed to spice up your next news release, annual report, blog post or Op Ed?

I’m only kidding. But I thought it would be fun to explore some of the rarest characters only a true grammar guru or narrative ninja would know.

Let’s start this grammar lesson first with a few familiar characters. Like any good story, we need a set up before we learn more about the most mysterious and intriguing characters you’ll ever meet in writing.

Mobile phones and texting have caused a revolution as you’ll see in a moment. Traditional grammarians are convulsing as they see history, not to mention grammar rules, threatened by technology.

What of the hashtag, the en dash, em dash, caret, guillemet, tildes and the excitable interrobang‽ We have the inside scoop on 23 characters you absolutely must know if you’re a writer!

Punctuation Twilight Zone

Do you know this character’s name? Answer below.

There’s a place so alien many PR writers haven’t been there before. Bloggers beware its sirens. Here’s a roadmap to guide you through this brave new world filled with strange new characters….

  • Dash – Bet you thought you knew all about the simple dash? Riddle me this. Do you know the differences between the hyphen, minus sign, -en dash, –em dash, underscore_, figure dash, horizontal bar and the swung dash? I thought not. Inquiring minds need to know and Wikipedia will set you straight including the “disambiguating value of the en dash.” Like fine wine – simple, yet complex.
  • Exclamation mark ! –  Of course you know this one. PR people love the exclamation mark. Unfortunately, it’s the crystal meth of punctuation marks. Totally addictive and the bane of most reporters and editors. It’s mostly used by enthusiastic, inexperienced PR pros, always-hyper marketing types or entrepreneurs. Did you also know it’s called, according to Wikipedia:  “in the printing world, “a screamer, a gasper, a startler, or … a dog’s cock.” Honest. Just DON’T overuse it!!!!
  • unusual typographyHashtag # – once better known as the number, pound sign or octothorpe but more commonly known by serious Twitter users as the #hashtag or hash mark.  It’s becoming a heavyweight search tool.  Just don’t confuse hash with the musical symbol called sharp ().
  • Asterisk * – PR people love asterisks. Originates from the Latin asteriscus or Greek asteriskos or “little star” though it is also sometimes called a “splat.” It’s often used as an excuse to go too long by adding content with extra information or a footnote. It’s a real pinch hitter, helpful indicating a bullet list, on a cell phone, for being emphatic* or replacing letters in your favorite F-word. There’s also the rarely used  or asterism – a constellation of three asterisks to highlight text or separate book chapters. Don’t be tempted. Use these characters sparingly. Keep it simple folks.
  • Obelus ÷  – Who knew that’s what the division sign is called? Wikipedia says it was once “used in ancient manuscripts to mark passages that were suspected of being corrupted or spurious.” Perfect for PR but of course never used in modern times.
  • Other name? Epershand

    Ampersand & – also called the “epershand; “&” is a logogram representing the conjunction word “and.” This symbol is a ligature of the letters in et, Latin for “and”.” Figure out that use of parentheses if you will.

  • Pilcrow  ¶ - These days, the pilcrow is mostly used as a paragraph markup sign on your favorite word processor. At least now you know what it’s called if you’re ever asked.
  • Ellipsis  …, …, . . . – The ellipsis appears in several different forms but most commonly as three single dots or dot-dot-dot. I love the ellipsis because it’s so versatile. You can use it to show an incomplete thought… to show a missing word, a pause in speech or share a feeling of melancholy. Wikipedia shares an excellent example: “For example, when Count Dracula says “I never drink . . . wine”, the implication is that he does drink something else.” What more could you ask for as a writer…?
  • Slash/stroke/solidus - The slash dates from ancient Rome: “one slash (/) represented a comma, while two slashes (//) represented a dash. The two slashes eventually evolved into a sign similar to the equals sign (=), then being further simplified to a single dash or hyphen (–).” (Wikipedia) It’s most commonly used to indicate a choice such as Y/N but is also used to make a strong joint between words – such as “the Hemingway/Faulkner generation.” And then there’s the backslash and the fraction slash. I think I’m getting a headache.
  • Vertical bar/broken bar/pipe  ( ¦, | ) – The vertical bar is one interesting character. It’s also called the verti-barvbarstickvertical linevertical slashor barthink colonpoley, or divider line. Suffice to say only a grammar Geek needs to know more. Use it or lose it.
  • Section sign  ( § ) – The §. is one of the sexier typography characters. All dolled up and ready to use to show a break between sections and occasionally used to indicate paragraph breaks like her brother the pilcrow. You’ll notice above, when used with the underline sign, she looks like she’s wearing a great pair of shoes.
  • Caret  ^ – I can’t think of any reason a writer needs to use a caret anymore except in editing or proofreading or as a circumflex accent. But it works great like raised kitty ears or eyebrows when you’re texting.
  • Lozenge  ◊  – Occasionally, you’ll see the lozenge used as an interesting variation of a bullet in lists or on signage to show a special lane. Hell, I just thought it was a smart name for a character.
  • Reference mark  (  ) – Why you’d want to use the “reference mark” is beyond me. Unless you’re a ninja, heraldry or civil war aficionado. Or maybe to win the big prize playing Jeopardy. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive character.
  • Index/fist  (  ) – Other names for the symbol include printer’s fistbishop’s fistdigitmutton-fist and pointing hand. It’s only rarely used to point to an important word or text or as an alternative to characters in a bullet list. Hey, those are great alternate names for the index aren’t they?
  • Tie   )  – Wikipedia says that tie is: “can be used between two characters with spacing as punctuation, or non-spacing as a diacritic. It can be above or below, and reversed. Its forms are called tiedouble breveenotikonligature tiepapyrological hyphen, and undertie.” Who knew?
  • Irony punctuation  ( ؟ )  – This backwards question mark shows irony or sarcasm. It’s old, as in the 19th century. Don’t bother.
  • Dagger†, ‡ ) – if it’s still used at all, the dagger or a double-dagger is a secondary footnote character. Yo!  If you have teenagers, you’ll also know the symbol represents death, extinction or obsolescence usually on their T-shirts or tattoos.
  • Irony mark () – You’ll have to read the description for this character on Wikipedia yourself. I didn’t understand when you would use it at all in modern writing. Something to do with “love points”, “authority points” and “walk the bird.”
  • Tilde  ~  No, this character is not the Australian drinking song Waltzing Matilda. Computer programmers call tildesquigglesquiggly, or twiddle. You’ll use the tilde once in a while to mean similar to or approximately, as in ~30 miles.
  • Guillemets  ( « » ) – trust the French to come up with a cool sounding name for something used occasionally to indicate a quotation. Unless you’re wanting to sound silly to your French girlfriend or boyfriend, fuhgedaboutit.
  • Interrobang ‽ - This glyph is an exciting combination of an exclamation mark with a question mark. It’s my favorite though it has no practical purpose in today’s PR writing‽ It wonderfully expresses delight, disbelief or asks a rhetorical question‽ And if it’s good enough for cartoonists, it’s good enough for me‽

How to Find These Characters on Your Keyboard

In Microsoft Windows XP, click Start, point to All Programs, go to Accessories, point to System Tools, and then click Character Map. If you know which character you want to insert, insert a special character directly into a document without using Character Map. To do that, open the document and position the cursor where you want the special character to appear. Then, with NUM LOCK on, hold down ALT while you press the keys on the numeric keypad to type the Unicode character. Easy does it. You’re on your own with Mac or other OS but just check the “Help” function.

Well, that brings class to a close. If you master these 23 mysterious writing characters, we’ll all be mightily impressed. Plus, we’ll just call you what you are: a grammar Geek‽ Just don’t use them all in one place! ؟@*¿#%$~

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Author: Jeff Domansky

Visuals: Wikipedia