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Punctuation Has Its Day in the Sun (English Teachers Boast “I Told You So!”

March 25, 2010

Poor punctuation. It has always been pushed to the side in the English language’s fight for the spotlight, favored by its snazzier cousins like vocabulary, literary terms and rhetorical tactics. But now, finally, in the beginning of this new decade punctuation marks are getting their fair share of attention. These little symbols may actually now be considered exciting, and that’s f%*#ing sweet.

The first order of business is a celebration of the @ sign. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has accepted the symbol to its architecture and design collection which, for an element of design, is akin to an Oscar for actors. This may be a bit shocking in the realm of punctuation marks-why not the far more popular question mark or exclamation point?- but think about it. This symbol has grown out of obscurity (originally used mainly in accounting documents as shorthand for “at the rate of”) to become an integral part of our universe. Thanks to its inclusion in email addresses, we couldn’t conduct the vast majority of our business deals, social interaction or politics without it.

So its story is impressive, but how did it come to be valued at an equal rate as some of the most famous and respected pieces of design? The process of admission is lengthy, and can only be included after winning over a committee of twenty-five architecture and design specialists who agree that the submission meets the scrutiny of the entry criteria. Does it excel in terms of form and function? Does it embody the values of clarity, honesty and simplicity that MoMA considers essential to good design? Has it made an impact on our lives? Is it innovative? If it had never been designed, would the world miss out?

MoMA considered the @ symbol a prime example of what they were looking for, particularly for its ability to make complicated concepts more elegant and economical (a characteristic prized in an era of recession.) They also consider it timeless, partly because it is not a physical object. As for its relevance, they turn to the fact that various cultures have started to mythologize it, nicknaming it with cutesy terms like the “snail” (France, Italy) or “pig’s tail” (Norway), “little mouse” (China) or sleeping cat (Finland). It is completely pervasive in our culture.

As the @ symbol proves, punctuation marks not only our language, but our evolving culture as well. They become more important or fade away with changing language trends, but what happens when our society is confronted with a new linguistic problem that no existing punctuation mark can fix? Michigan-based Pual Sak noticed that, in our increasingly digital means of communication, more and more people were getting into trouble with their sarcasm being misunderstood as seriousness.

So, with his son, he set out on creating a symbol that could be used to denote that teasing inflection that is so often lost in print (because I guess : P wasn’t cutting it). Sak wanted the mark to be the same size and width as other punctuation to allow it to be integrated easily, and wanted to continue the tradition of having a period as the basis of the mark like the exclamation point or question mark. The two developed a mark that’s a period surround by a spiral , patented it and released it to the public in January 2010.  The “SarkMark” is available for download for $1.99 and is compatible, for now, with Windows and Blackberries. Mac and iPhone versions are in the works. Behold:

He’s hoping that it’ll catch on to become as accepted as emoticons, but a lot of people aren’t buying it, including the father of emoticons himself, Scott Fahlman, who criticized the SarcMark for not being as easy and free as his solution. Others question the necessity for a sarcasm mark, claiming that if the writer misjudges their audience or the reader can’t pick up on simple cues, than that’s their fault. Also, until the SarcMark becomes common knowledge (if it ever comes to that) it won’t be filling the gap of miscommunication anyway, since people won’t recognize the symbol for what it stands for. Then there is the camp that points out people barely know how to use the punctuation that has been in place for decades so perhaps it’s best not to mess with it for now. Although, judging from how quickly emoticons caught on, and the general destruction of the English language through easy shortcuts, perhaps the SarcMark will be a success after all.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 1:54 pm

    Down with the SarcMark!

    Punctuation for sarcasm must be free, standards-compliant, and historically accurate.

    Use ¡ to punctuate your sarcastic comments. It works in plain-text without both users in a conversation installing special software, is drawn from Ethiopic tradition, and you don’t have to pay for it. More info at

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