Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Emily Gordon writes:

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: the top entries in our punctuation correspondence contest, which surpassed even our own usually fanciful expectations. Here are the Emdashes staff picks for the top entries in the contest. We tried to keep it to our top five, but we were unsuccessful.

Shortly after this is posted, Ben Greenman, whose book What He’s Poised to Do will be personally punctuated and signed for the contest winner, will make the final choice/s. (There may be a runner-up.) In the meantime, enjoy these winning (for they are all decidedly winning) letters to marks famous and internet-famous. And feel free to continue to submit entries for your own and our amusement!



Dear Colon:

Did you like how I used a colon after your name? I did that on
purpose. I like you a lot. Do you like me? Please check yes or no

_ yes

I need you to come to my house. Here’s why: my husband and I have a
nephew. His name is Colin. We love Colin very much but for some reason
whenever my husband writes his name, he write Colon. I’m not sure what
bothers me more: The misuse of your name or the incorrect spelling of
his sister’s child.

Between you and me, I know the difference. I also know about the whole
“body part” thing. I refuse to denigrate you by talking about that.

Just know this: every list I make, every point I make, I’m thinking of you.



If you’re old enough to understand that reference, you’re old enough to write a letter to your favorite punctuation mark! If you’re not old enough, that’s OK; we would love to have, and if possible, exploit, your unique Gen-Y take on the matter. If you’re too old to have listened to a Sinéad O’Connor song sixty-five times in a row, we especially welcome your submissions, because you remember when paper was paper and music was music and people didn’t sprinkle around exclamation points so promiscuously. To all of you, we issue this grave but encouraging reminder: This is the last day to enter to win a signed, specially decorated copy of Ben Greenman’s book What He’s Poised to Do, and to win our hearts and the deep and eternal regard of your fellow man. We can’t wait to see what you do, but hurry. (No exclamation point, as a gesture of respect to our elders—for there are still, at the time of this writing, people older than ourselves.) —Emily Gordon

Very much related: National Punctuation Day.


Emily Gordon writes:

At Yahoo! Answers, the world is always ready with solutions, judgments, and miscellaneous gibberish. We would like to reassure “Lost.,” the writer of this lonely cry for help, that she is not alone, and should not despair! “What is causing this?” she writes. What’s causing this is a love for truth and beauty that will not be shattered by underminers, naysayers, and nattering nabobs of instant messaging, and nothing less. If only we could speak directly to her, we would invite her to enter our contest to write the best letter to a punctuation mark, which has 58 entries so far and counting.

Alas, she’s an anonymous anime illustration. In her honor, then, let’s write more letters to more punctuation marks, who are loved. Or sometimes (see below) threatened with legal action. You have till August 15 to enter, and, maybe, win Ben Greenman’s new book!


ben greenman book cover.jpg

Update: We’ve announced the finalists, and the winner!

We loved every single letter to every single mark. Thank you!

Ben Greenman’s new book, What He’s Poised to Do, was recently published by Harper Perennial, and critics are already hailing its mix of emotional sophistication and formal innovation. Just the tip of the iceberg: Steve Almond, writing in the Los Angeles Times, calls the fourteen stories in the collection “astonishing,” and Pauls Toutonghi at Bookslut calls them “beautiful”—even better, “a book so beautiful, you’ll feel mysteriously compelled to mail it to a stranger.

The book, in large part, deals with letters: how they are (or aren’t) effective conveyances for emotional intimacy and truth. Along with the book, Mr. Greenman has launched a site called Letters With Character, which invites readers to write letters to their favorite fictional characters—most recently, Alyosha Karamazov, Madame Psychosis from Infinite Jest, and Ernest Hemingway’s Yogi Johnson from The Torrents of Spring.

Here at Emdashes, we love letters (especially those sent through the postal mail), but there’s something we love even more: punctuation. Indeed, when we discovered that the upside-down question mark—as in ¿Qué?—had no official name, we challenged you, our readers, to rename it, and now the frequent (you wouldn’t believe how frequent) googlers who seek this information know the answer: it is the interroverti, all thanks to you.

In the same spirit, we’re combining two of our top-ten passions in life and challenging you to write a letter to your favorite punctuation mark, or perhaps one you find elusive, insufficiently loved, or sound but overexposed. Tell it anything you want: your fears, your frustrations, your innermost desires. Then put it in the comments section below so we can read it, too. Deadline: August 16. (We know all too well that it can take a bit of time to write a good letter—or even a telegraphic telegram.)

Here is a partial list of possible correspondents, with the current tally of blushing recipients marked in bold, and also ranked here in descending order of popularity: the acute accent, the air quote, the ampersand (3), the apostrophe (7), the asterisk (2), the at-the-price-of, the at sign (3), the backslash, the bracket, the bullet, the caret, the colon (3), the comma, the curly quote, the dagger, the dash ditto mark, the diaeresis, the dollar sign, the double hyphen (which is perhaps not what you thought it was), the ellipsis (10), the em dash (2)—toward which some jurors are slightly biased—or the en dash, the newly coined exclaquestion mark, the exclamation point (7), the full stop (2), the grawlix (2), the hyphen, the interpunct, the interrobang (2), the inverted exclamation point, the interroverti (formerly the inverted question mark), the little star, the macron, the manicule (2), the number sign, the parenthesis (((3))), the percent sign, the period (3), the pilcrow, the pound sign, the question mark (3), the quotation mark (or a pair of them), the controversial semicolon (7), the smart quote, the slash, the tilde (2), the underline, the Oxford comma, or any other mark close to your heart but not listed here. We will select the best letter and award the writer a signed copy of Mr. Greenman’s book, which may in fact contain the beloved mark in question. He may even add an extra one just for you.

Remember: Post your letter in the comments below by August 16, and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of this exceptionally satisfying book of stories by one of our favorite writers. The best of the entry letters will all be collected in a post of their own, with sparkles, blue ribbons, and plenty of punctuation. If you can’t wait till mid-August to find out if you’ve won, and/or have friends who love letters and will love this book, of course, you can also order a copy.

Posting tip: You can use basic HTML tags to make line spaces; try the paragraph and break tags, as needed. If you don’t know how or would like our help, we are obsessive editor types and are happy to right the spacing for you.

Art note: The painting on the book cover is by Alyssa Monks, whose portraits of women and men and bodies and children and water and funny faces are scorchingly beautiful.

Factual note: We realize that some of these marks are really less punctuation than they are typographical elements. But since they’re getting letters, or we think they should, we’re including them.

Related posts and links:

Short Imagined Monologues: I Am the Period at the End of This Paragraph. [Ben Greenman, McSweeney’s]
Exciting Emdashes Contest! ¿What Should We Call the Upside-Down Question Mark?
Our in-depth coverage of punctuation—five years and counting!
More Emdashes contests, giveaways, and assorted bunk
Is That an Emoticon in 1862? [NYT/City Room]


comments are off

Pollux writes:

What species is Eustace Tilley’s butterfly?

Back in May 2009 I posited the suggestion that Tilley’s nameless butterfly, which to me symbolizes creative inspiration, is a
Clouded Sulphur, whose scientific name is Colias philodice. The Clouded Sulphur’s range includes New York. Is it possible Rea Irvin had a specific butterfly in mind?


2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree