It may seem frivolous, I suppose, but thinking about punctuation is one of those things that writers and teachers love to do. I spent a half hour in an upper-level college writing class recently explaining what difference it makes to a reader whether you use a comma, a colon, a semicolon, a dash, or some other form of punctuation in a sentence. I’m sure I looked crazy, running around, gesticulating wildly, but that’s what teachers do, I guess.
Anyhow (ahem), I’m not the only one: over at Vulture, they’re looking at the five best punctuation marks in literature:
I was reminded of the existence of this canon last month, while rereading Middlemarch, which contains what might be the most celebrated use of an em-dash in the history of fiction. That sent me to my bookshelves in search of other examples of remarkable punctuation. I wanted specific instances, so I ignored the slightly different category of books or authors closely associated with a given kind of punctuation. (Celine and his ellipses, say, or Emily Dickinson and her famous dashes.) Some forms of punctuation seem less marked out for fame than others; if anyone knows of a noteworthy comma, I’d love to hear about it. But what follows is a — well, what follows is a colon, which sets off a list, which contains the most extraordinary examples I could find of the most humble elements of prose.