The Psychology of Punctuation

If you’ve never considered how your punctuation marks advance arguments and create emotion in themselves, let me delight you. Let me change your life. Let me forever transform how you view punctuation.

I tell my students this: the colon makes an argument. It’s bossy. It’s a controlling, dominating symbol that pushes the reader around. Use it when you want to feel bold, confident, and sassy. Choose the colon to accomplish two things: focus and ferocity.

If you want to sway your reader without them knowing it, use the semicolon; it’s a sly, seductive way of telling the reader how you want them to relate your sentences to one another. The semicolon symbolizes something romantic, beautiful even. It doesn’t argue; it beckons. 

Now, if you’ve had enough with your readers, those you believe aren’t listening to you, use the dashes because–unlike the overbearing and extra exclamation point that sounds desperate–they shout without annoying anyone. They tell the reader to look–really look–at what you’re saying inside those dashes. It’s enthusiasm without shrieking. The joyful dashes tell the reader you have something to say–and it’s gonna be awesome–so keep reading.

Maybe, just maybe, you don’t feel close to your readers (they, after all, exist as unnamed, unseen eyes reading), so I invite you to use the parentheses. The parentheses create a moment of intimacy, a secret, a whisper. It’s me cuddling close to tell you something special (something I don’t tell just anyone).

The psychology of punctuation reminds me that even at the level of mere punctuation, I’m crafting emotion. I’m directing you to feel something about me, and I’m telling you just how I feel about you.

Is there anything more fascinating? Well, maybe vivid verbs, but that’s an argument for another class.



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