The muse gets all the press, but here’s a fact: Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks. It’s 1 a.m., you’ve got a 5,000-word piece due the next day, and for the last twenty minutes you’ve been deliberating about the use of a semicolon versus a period in a single sentence. (But should it be two sentences? Twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes … ) As a rule, the effect of all that obsession is subtle, a kind of pixel-by-pixel accretion of style. Once in a while, though, a bit of punctuation pops its head up over the prose, and over the prosaic, and becomes a part of a tiny but interesting canon: famous punctuation marks in literature.
I was reminded of the existence of this canon last month, while rereadingMiddlemarch, 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:
You’ve probably heard the old story about the pedant who dared to tinker with Winston Churchill’s writing because the great man had ended a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s scribbled response: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
It’s a great story, but it’s a myth. And so is that so-called grammar rule about ending sentences with prepositions. If that previous sentence bugs you, by the way, you’ve bought into another myth. No, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, either. But perhaps the biggest grammar myth of all is the infamous taboo against splitting an infinitive, as in “to boldly go.” The truth is that you can’t split an infinitive: Since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split. Great writers—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Wordsworth—have been inserting adverbs between “to” and infinitives since the 1200s.
Where did these phony rules originate, and why do they persist?
For some of them, we can blame misguided Latinists who tried to impose the rules of their favorite language on English. Anglican bishop Robert Lowth popularized the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition in his 1762 book, A Short Introduction to English Grammar; while Henry Alford, a dean of Canterbury Cathedral, was principally responsible for the infinitive taboo, with his publication of A Plea for the Queen’s English in 1864.