Sometimes a punctuation mark is more than a punctuation mark. Period.
You undoubtedly caught what I just did there, using the word period as an adverb or interjection to emphasize my point. And voilà: a punctuation mark being more than a punctuation mark.
I first became interested in the life of punctuation marks as words, rather than squiggles on a page, when I learned about how younger speakers are using slash as a coordinator. It got me wondering about how many punctuation marks have taken on innovative grammatical and discourse functions.
The period seems the most obvious. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for the word period as an adverb (or what American Heritage labels as an interjection) back to 1914. Here is a nice example from 1946 from the Baltimore Sun:
- A cigarette is supposed to give you pleasure. Period.
A study of Twitter data from a couple of years ago turns up examples of this emphatic use of period. Notice that it is punctuated in a couple of different ways: as an adverb at the end of a sentence or as its own sentence. Here are a few examples from Twitter:
- Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period.
- The soccer gods are drunk. Period. Sorry, but I don’t like my World Cup with Greece winning.
- If you want better you’d do better. Period!
Full stop, as a phrase, may be an even stronger version of period in American English, used to make a statement emphatic and suggest, perhaps, the point is not arguable.
The ellipsis has also become more than just a punctuation mark, but not always in the form of the word ellipsis. One graduate-student informant reports that she and her friends could say:
- So we went upstairs, and, you know, ellipsis.
Undergraduate students have been very clear with me that in order to suggest the unspoken or trail off in a more playful or emphatic way than a written punctuation mark can, one says and writes dot dot dot (or dotdotdot). Consider these examples of dot dot dot from Twitter:
- Maybe we can flirt and dot dot dot
- My parents are going out of town this weekend dot dot dot
I especially like this additional example from Twitter, where dot dot dot becomes a verb (this may refer to the use of dot dot dot to signal an awkward pause in texting or other social media):
- Don’t you ever dot dot dot me
Are you now searching your brain for other punctuation marks we may say out loud? Scare quotes would count. The OED has examples of quote unquote back to 1918. The early examples appear to be literal, trying to capture the punctuation on the page, as in this example from the Bridgeport Telegram (1918):
- Title of picture to be quote Watchful Waiting unquote.
Later examples, though, start to look like the scare-quote use common today, when quote unquote is used to suggest the speaker/writer is quoting others in a skeptical way and/or believes the quoted material is problematic or inaccurate. Here are three examples from Twitter that show how the phrase quote unquote can appear before, after, or surrounding the quoted material:
- Attached is my quote unquote novel for your quote unquote agency.
- It’s the four year anniversary of the decision quote unquote by LeBron.
- my mother is explaining to her friend how i act quote punk rock unquote
A fourth example from Twitter is especially interesting because it employs quote unquote to signal the writer’s attitude toward the label “fans”—and still includes the actual quotation marks:
- notice I said quote, unquote “fans”!!!!
Quote unquote is doing a kind of emphatic discourse work on the page.
I find myself pondering whether comma has or can make the jump. Part of me thinks I have heard comma used emphatically in speech in phrases such as “However, comma, … ” (and there is an example of this in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, but I’m not sure whether it is a transcription error). Here is a second intriguing example from COCA, from an interview with Rachel Maddow in Mother Jones. She is talking about Pat Buchanan and then states:
- You want to talk Watergate? He was there. You want to talk culture war? That was him. Southern strategy, comma, Buchanan.
So I’m not betting against the comma. Exclamation mark.