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Rebecca O'Connell / iStock (texture and word bubble) / Getty Images (Vonnegut)
Rebecca O'Connell / iStock (texture and word bubble) / Getty Images (Vonnegut)

6 Punctuation Marks Hated by Famous Authors

Rebecca O'Connell / iStock (texture and word bubble) / Getty Images (Vonnegut)
Rebecca O'Connell / iStock (texture and word bubble) / Getty Images (Vonnegut)

Punctuation marks are not the most important tools in a writer's toolkit, but writers can develop some strong opinions about them. Here are six punctuation marks that famous authors grew to hate.

1. THE OXFORD COMMA

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, inspires passionate emotions on both sides, but more frequently on the pro side. James Thurber, New Yorker writer and author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, made a case against it to his editor Harold Ross, in a discussion of the phrase “the red, white, and blue.” Thurber complained that “all those commas make the flag seemed rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.”

2. THE COMMA

Gertrude Stein had no use for the Oxford comma, or any kind of comma at all, finding the use of them “degrading.” In her Lectures in America, she said, “Commas are servile and they have no life of their own … A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it.”

3. THE QUESTION MARK

Stein also objected to the question mark [PDF], finding it “positively revolting” and of all the punctuation marks “the completely most uninteresting.” There was no reason for it since “a question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already there in the writing.”

4. THE EXCLAMATION POINT

In Beloved Infidel, Sheilah Graham’s memoir of her time with F. Scott Fitzgerald in his later years, she describes the things she learned from him about life and writing. In a red-pen critique of a script she had written, he told her to “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

5. THE APOSTROPHE

Playwright George Bernard Shaw thought apostrophes were unnecessary and declined to use them in words like don’t, doesn’t, I’ve, that’s, and weren’t. He did use them for words like I’ll and he’ll, where the apostropheless version might cause confusion. He made clear his disdain for the little marks in his Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers, where he said, “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

6. THE SEMICOLON

Kurt Vonnegut, in his essay “Here is a lesson in creative writing” (published in the book A Man Without a Country), comes out forcefully against the semicolon in his first rule: “Never use semicolons.” He insults them as representing “absolutely nothing” and claims “all they do is show you’ve been to college.” Semicolon lovers can take heart in the fact that he may have been kidding a little bit—after using a semicolon later in the book, Vonnegut noted, “Rules take us only so far. Even good rules.”

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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