Editor's notes: TH readers try to punctuate their way to glory

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Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 9:15 am

Earlier this month, I wrote about National Punctuation Day founder Jeff Rubin's contest.

The challenge: Write one paragraph, maximum of three sentences, using these 13 punctuation marks:

* apostrophe

* brackets

* colon

* comma

* dash

* ellipsis

* exclamation point

* hyphen

* parentheses

* period

* question mark

* quotation mark

* semicolon

Several TH readers took the challenge. They were good enough to share their entries with me. Here goes:

I read about this punctuation contest in today's TH and thought to myself, "I wonder if I should enter that contest; hmmm... what have I got to lose?" I decided to give it a try (after all, I always liked grammar and punctuation!). My eighth-grade teacher, Sister Sylvia Stevens, OSF [deceased Jan. 2004], would have been so delighted - especially since she spent so much time teaching things such as: grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, etc. -- Deanna Koopmann, Dubuque

Dr. Mark Migh-Werdz said to a hysterical Julie Umlaut (she had reported feeling "very sik" [sic] on her admission form), "Comma down, Julie, your colon is punctuated, and it could lead to ellipsis, so I'd like to shorten it just a dash to a semicolon." "I have a question, Mark," started Julie, "about what my parentheses - mainly my mom - said to me when she told me this quotation, Mark, after learning of my religious apostrophe, ‘Many girls have lost their hyphen to the balance beam, period!' she said; however, I have no idea what the point of her exclamation was, do you?" "Let me think ..." said the doctor, "... if she's low on vitamin D, calcium or phosphate, she could have brackets, but it's probably only one thing: logorrhea." -- Robert Lynn, Dubuque

The great novelist pulled his wooden chair up close to the new typewriter; he began his epic novel with words of wisdom: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times [London and Paris in 1789], it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...in short the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." Doesn't this quotation describe America at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century as accurately as it describes the days of the French Revolution or the city of London caught in the grip of the Industrial Revolution? Human life-that combination of triumph and defeat-has changed so little since the era of Dickens' lovable Tiny Tim (the crippled boy in A Christmas Carol) that we can only echo the small child's prayer, "God bless us everyone!" -- Sue Cording

The basis of any person's ability to successfully communicate in writing is ...an understanding of, and ability to effectively use punctuation [punc·tu·a·tion: the act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs in written matter to clarify the meaning and separate structural units; also : a system of punctuation]. Can it be that today, the general population's inability to write comes from the myriad tools of convention that were intended to make them smarter; but regrettably, with an unintended consequence of creating a society of people unable to convey a simple thought in a grammatically correct sentence (grammar check, spell-check) - seriously - how could we have thought this was going to be a good thing: Did we not learn the lesson of what calculators did to our ability to process basic math? As one of my many skilled mentors once told me, "If you cannot effectively communicate with the pen, you had better be able to do so with a sword!" -- Staci Lange, East Dubuque, Ill.

It's a challenge to write in the English language, with all its nuanced meanings. For the dash, should I think elan, a footrace, pottery breaking on rocks, or maybe a hyphen-like word separator? A statement: ("Ask not what you can your country do for you; ask what you can do for your country!"). In ellipsis form: "Ask not -ask what?" [J. F. Kennedy] -- Roy Shaver, Platteville, Wisconsin

The editor's challenge---use 13 punctuation marks in a short, three-sentence paragraph---was one that intrigued this copy editor, and I asked myself: Was I up to the challenge? The fabulous grand prize ("punctuation goodies") is a grammar geek's dream come true; I'm sure to win...yeah, that's the spirit! So, thanks for the editorial (Telegraph Herald [my hometown newspaper], September 13, 2011) and for taking me away from editing the cockroach chapter in my zoology lab manual...I hope I still make my deadline. -- Sue Dillon, Dubuque

Olympia Bracket-Smythe (by now appearing old enough to be from the Chalcolithic Period [3500-1700 B.C.]) asked All-American athlete Jeff whether he had inquired concerning their mutual friend's colon health issues, which recently had led to a secondary list of semi-colon-related symptoms. Her query, punctuated by the sound of a nearby jack-hammer, was: "Did...you...question Mark?" Stunned as he now realized his oversight, Jeff responded: "Talk about failing a friend-my only thought at the moment was to dash with my date to Exclamation Point (a local, scenic over-look)!" -- Fred Baltz, Galena

I purchased "The Cello Suites" [J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and The Search for a Baroque Masterpiece] by Eric Siblin on a whim - mostly likely, I thought, it was a techno-Babel treatise on the subject; but I was definitely wrong! When I received the book, the dust jacket drew me with a lovely photograph of a cello (I love the voice of the cello) in rich browns and gold superimposed on a black matte background: a tribute to the equally beautiful writing inside. The book's blend of history, music, and the author's personal search for a lost manuscript enthralled me....who can ask more of a book than that? -- Sheila E. Dreckman, Potosi, Wis.

Grocery shopping can be hazardous...carts bumping you - people yelling - cash registers gobbling money...have you ever wondered why so many shoppers look frustrated? It's no wonder, consider: chewing-gum used to be a nickel for five sticks, now one dollar buys fifteen sticks in a paper container that becomes annoying after it's two thirds full; coffee once came in one-pound cans, [several years ago, the pound was demoted to thirteen ounces] now, (with no advance warning that I heard) some cans are eleven ounces. And "cans" are no longer made of metal, but cardboard! -- Shirley O'Neill, Benton, Wis.

Who came up with this half-cocked exercise in some self-proclaimed grammarian's attempt to confound normality? I'll bet it was a frustrated author (someone who has sold thirteen books and one poem), but this taskmaster-in the most severe sense-will not stop me from my quest! As Dr. Doufous [the lesser] said, "Punctuation in the hands of...amateurs is like putty in the hands of, well, dieticians; I digress": his meaning was as clear as this paragraph. -- Bruce Bothwell, Asbury, Iowa

Good luck to all these entrants in the national contest!


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