The best punctuation marks in literature

Kathryn Schulz wrote a great little listicle for Vulture called “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature,” which discusses, for example, Nabokov’s hilarious parentheses and George Eliot’s superb em-dash. Do you all have any favorite uses of exclamation marks, ampersands, ellipses, et cetera? It could be in prose, poetry, or something else entirely.

The first great punctuation that sprang to my mind was Clarice Lispector’s enigmatic six em-dashes after the last sentence of The Passion According to G.H.:

What are they doing there? Why are there six, and not five, or seven? Is it meant to denote the continuation of the narrator’s existence after the final sentence, or the end of it? Does it stand in for a missing sentence or word? Does she finally, and completely stop understanding her self-expression?

The absent apostrophe in Finnegans Wake.

The period at the end of the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions:
“To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole:”

Stupid size limits


Excellent call on #5. I should have thought of that.

Ian Fleming, in Moonraker (1955), Bond is calling upon M at a social club, and he is identified as “Admiral Sir M---- M-------” A decade later, in The Man With the Golden Gun, M is identified as Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, and the blanks are filled in exactly right.

Not exactly literature, but Ben Franklin (hey, it’s his birthday today!) wrote a letter to a friend in London in the mid-1770s as the Revolution loomed, and concluded his letter with:

*Now you are my enemy, and I am


Ben Franklin*

That’s great. Reminds me of “Major ---- de Coverley” in Catch-22. Can’t remember if his name was ever revealed though.

Nope. Nobody wants to ask his name. It reminds me of the Victorian(?) novel fashion where they would blank out even fictional characters’ names. Of course, there is a TVTrope.

SF writer Vernor Vinge did the same trick in his book “Rainbows End.”

Whether or not it’s relevant, "Sir Roger de Coverley " is the name of an English folk dance . There may have been five gaps in the name.

100% of E.E. Cummings poems.

There was a piece I read somewhere about Russian writers and their favourite punctuation marks, and how it expressed their styles. I remember Bely and Gogol being mentioned, as well as a couple others, but I can’t remember any details at all. It may have even been something Nabokov wrote about Russian writers – I just don’t know.

I feel it may be relevant to this discussion, but unfortunately I can’t locate it right now. Does anyone know what I am talking about and/or can find it?

I suppose everyone knows the famous telegram (and response) that Victor Hugo sent his publisher to inquire how sales of Les Misérables were doing.

Hugo: ?

Publisher: !

Im not sure if I like Cormac McCarthys no apostrophe affectation and wouldnt think someone of Irish ancestry would discard such an important piece of writers punctuation.

“After dinner, the men moved into the living room.” A sentence of Thurber’s, edited by Harold Ross. I’ll always love that comma for the laugh it gave me via Thurber’s explanation.

Major ---- and Sir M---- reminded me of some other character/punctuation names:

“K.” from Kafka’s The Castle
“V.” from Pynchon’s V.
The punctuationally maximalist “A . . .” from Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy

I think it suits you quite nicely. :cool:

He also often doesn’t use quotation marks.

Well if I had my druthers and wasnt purposely dropping them Id write it like this

Very serendipitous (and I’ll start using them): I wasn’t searching for apostrophes or anything, but this is current news I see: Apostrophe catastrophe as Cambridge City Council bans punctuation from new street names. You can pry them out of my cold dead hands, England.

McCarthy also has the habit of pushing together two words when they have one meeting. Examples: sockfeet, machinegun. It’s sort of interesting to track while you’re reading him.