A Dash of Comma Sense
A little still she strove, and much repented,
And whispering "I will ne'er consent" -- consented.
The humble hyphen performs heroic services, making possible compounds that would otherwise be unsightly ("de-ice" rather than "deice"; "shell-like" rather than "shelllike"). And a hyphen can rescue meaning. As Truss says, "A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public." If you are a pickled-herring merchant, you will not want to be called a pickled herring merchant. The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be sneezed at.
The connection between the words "punctilious," which means "attentive to formality or etiquette," and "punctuation" is instructive. Careful punctuation expresses a writer's solicitude for the reader. Of course punctuation, like most other forms of good manners, may yet entirely disappear, another victim of progress, this time in the form of e-mail, cell-phone text messages and the like.
Neither the elegant semicolon nor the dashing dash is of use to people whose preferred literary style is "CU B4 8?" and whose idea of Edwardian prolixity is: "Saw Jim -- he looks gr8 -- have you seen him -- what time is the thing 2morrow."
Oh, for the era when a journalist telephoned from Moscow to London to add a semicolon to his story!
© 2004 The Washington Post Company