Punctuation & Self-Reference

I’ve been thinking about how punctuation marks exhibit self-reference. A mark might indicate something about a sentence, and also embody that same thing: it might be what it describes.

The simplest example is the period. The period tells us the sentence is ending, and in fact it is the end–it’s the very last character that we consider to be part of the sentence.

This constant conjunction of indicating “the end” and being “the end” is so familiar to us that the distinction can be hard to see. Imagine, then, that we were taught to write like this:

Punctuation Rule #1: Place the period after the penultimate word of the. sentence

Of course, that’s a dumb rule, but it shows how, with a different usage convention, the period would not be self-referential. In this altered system, the period tells us where the sentence ends (always after the word that follows it) but it isn’t the end (there’s one more word to go).

Now consider the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark is self-referential because it indicates emphasis, and yet by being less common than the period, it commands our attention and thereby creates emphasis when it occurs. Of course, if we overuse the exclamation mark, it ceases to stand out, and becomes less effective in creating what it indicates.

Punctuation Rule #2: Use it! The exclamation mark! Wherever possible!

In followup posts, I would like to argue that two nonstandard punctuation marks: the interrobang and the irony mark, are a field-day of self-reference. In particular:

The interrobang is baffling

The irony mark is the most ironic thing ever conceived⸮

Diversions, Language

Italics Mine


Many readers know that the expression “italics mine” is used in formal writing when the author has added italics to quoted text.  It’s a courteous way to say that the italics weren’t there in the original– courteous to the reader (who might otherwise be confused) and courteous to the original author (who would otherwise be… misquoted).  Some time ago, this phrase began sounding decidedly uncourteous in my mind. I had always heard something like this: “I would like to fulfill my responsibility to inform you that I’ve added these italics.” But suddenly I heard, “I OWN these italics — they’re mine!” And once “italics mine” had revealed this surly potential, I could not go back to thinking of it as its polite and dutiful self.  So now when I’m in a quiet library, I imagine a cacophony of all the instances of “italics mine,” shouting out from within their respective books, competing for ownership of all italics: Mine! Mine! Mine!  Above, you have a self-referential example where the italic text asserts possession of itself.