It was brought to my attention (I love the phrase, because I envision velvet-liveried footmen bringing a notion—one resting on a purple pillow—to me) that there is a book that takes a studied look at the history of parentheses, their use over the ages, their value as a species, their contributions not only to the literature, but as an aesthetic component of thought.
It is called But I Digress. Not only is this a work of 344 pages, its purchase price is $175. My.
Because I enjoy the employment (though not the moral obligations) of a good pair of parentheses myself, that spurred me to consider how the lovely little tocks and notches of punctuation create a soft side-current in the river of thought, an accent note, like how you might detect a whiff of elderberries in your Cabernet Franc, though its main train to your nostrils is peopled with toffee and raisin bread. Punctuation is the conductor’s wand to the orchestra’s melding of swelling verbal notes.
That got me to mulling over how the use of punctuation in some spare composition—an epitaph, say—might be the axis for delivering meaning. On the subject of epitaphs, writers should always write their own. You could do worse than emulate the sing-song declarativeness of some of the lines in the famed Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch:
He’s pining for a fjord
His metabolic processes are now history
He’s run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible
THIS IS AN EX PARROT!
Categorizing Your Tombstone Tokens
Fine epitaphs, but in regards punctuation, those Pythonesque parrotings are lacking. Consider a few categories:
Friendly – A simple phrase like “Loads o’ fun” works well. The apostrophe indicating the omitted “f” is casual and merry, and bespeaks geniality. What about an Elizabethan elision: O’er teacakes and waistcoats, I did preside
Marketing – Employ the marketer’s cudgel: the exclamation point. Something like Dead! Thoroughly! Special Offer to Repeat Visitors!
Brevity – Though he spoke it, the one-word sign-off for Dan Rather’s news broadcast all but shouted (and because it was one word, also intimately whispered) that the word ended with a full stop: Courage. You could try something like Stewing. Or maybe Ennui.
Needs Answering – And the interrogative ending will surely get your plot’s visitors mulling over meaning: Mind getting me some water? or, Do you know that hat makes you look like a monkey?
Pauses and Ponderings – I like a nice mix of colons and semicolons on a stone: Note to self: I’ll nap here; at some point, I’ll have to do laundry.
Corral Your Word Cattle – And of course we have to visit what prompted this business in the first place, the exalted parenthesis: Keep the peace (and keep your hands off my wife). or Here I lie. (Hey, it’s better than stealing.)
Closing with a Bang
This post is going on a bit, so I’ll wait til later to address that charming, coy curve, the comma; the happy hand-me-the-baton linker, the hyphen; and that dashing fellow—the dash—but I do want to close with a bang: an interrobang, that is.
A combination of the question mark and the exclamation point (dubbed on Wikipedia as a “quesclamation” mark), the bang is implying the asking of a question in a heightened state. Perhaps for an epitaph, something like “Christ, all this and they give me a view of the Safeway‽”
Rest easy, folks. And make sure your punctuation rests with you.