The word is triskaidekaphobia. Its literal meaning is ‘superstition about the number thirteen’, but it’s also used to refer to the specific fear of Friday the 13th. There is also the word paraskavedekatriaphobia, proposed by some as a more specific option, although this word is not yet in our dictionaries.
The truth is that there is no noun in general use that refers equally to a cow or a bull.
Zoologists use two terms. The first is ‘ox’, which is often restricted to animals of the genus Bos (i.e. the wild cattle – gaur, banteng, yak, aurochs, and kouprey – as well as domestic cattle). In popular use, though, the word ‘ox’ often refers to a castrated male animal, so that isn’t a perfect solution. The second zoological term is ‘bovine’, which is used as a noun to refer to any animal of the wider group that comprises cattle, buffaloes, and bison. But this would be a strange choice in most general contexts.
On the face of it, punctuation is not the most electrifying of subjects. A comma is a comma, a period is a period, and a semicolon is an argument waiting to happen. Look past squabbles over grammar, however, and punctuation’s staid veneer peels back to reveal a seething, Darwinian struggle that has played out over two millennia of the written word.
Though the period can claim an unbroken lineage stretching back to ancient Greece, and the quotation mark may boast of its roots in the early days of printing, for every venerable survivor there are countless other symbols that did not make the grade. The road from the scrolls of the library of Alexandria to today’s books, blog entries, and tweets is littered with the corpses of fallen marks of punctuation. Here are just a few of them:
The pilcrow (¶) is the poster child of abandoned punctuation marks. With roots in ancient Greece, the pilcrow started life during the fourth century BC as the paragraphos, a horizontal line drawn in the margin of many a papyrus scroll to indicate that something of interest lay in the corresponding line. The reader was left to determine precisely what that something was.
Evolving over the centuries into its modern reverse-P shape, the paragraphos came to be used to break texts into meaningful chunks such as paragraphs and sentences. With this duty came the trappings of its elevated role, and pilcrows were often separately inked in eye-catching colored ink. When the printing press arrived and the volume of new books skyrocketed, the spaces left for the pilcrow often went unfilled, and from the pilcrow’s ashes arose the indented paragraph.
Though it still lurks in word processor menus and printers’ type cases, the pilcrow of today is a typographic curio–a reminder of more extravagant times past.
A modern writer seeking to abbreviate the word “and” will doubtless reach for the ampersand (&). Things were not always thus, however, and for much of its two-thousand-year existence the ampersand was up against a rival mark boasting a conspicuously elevated pedigree. The 7-shaped “Tironian et” was the brainchild of Tiro, secretary to the famed first century BC orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Part of a system of Latin shorthand created at Cicero’s behest, Tiro’s mark survived well into the middle ages as an abbreviation for the word et, or “and.” Ultimately, though, for superstitious medieval writers the cryptic symbols of Tiro’s system were uncomfortably reminiscent of distrusted pagan runes, and Tiro’s system was pushed into disuse. Though it survives in Irish Gaelic, everywhere else the Tironian et has conceded to the ampersand.
Before printing imposed a degree of order on written language, the conventions of punctuation were very much up for grabs. Buoncompagno da Signa, a twelfth century man of letters, took a stab at creating a system of punctuation comprising only two marks: a slash (/) for short pauses and a horizontal line (-) for longer pauses. Da Signa called his marks virgulae, from the Latin virga, meaning “rod,” “staff,” or even “penis.”
The fortunes of the two marks were very different. By the fifteenth century the slash was in widespread use as a marker for any pause within a sentence, while its dash-like sibling had long since fallen into obscurity. The slash has been so successful, in fact, that it exists even today: though you might be hard pushed to recognize it, the mark the French still call la virgule has since retreated to the base of the line of text. We call it the comma.
For centuries after its invention, punctuation was the province of the reader, not the writer. The average ancient Greek or Roman struggled through texts devoid of commas, periods, and even word spaces, punctuating as they went to help pick apart the words and their meaning. Well into the medieval ages, even after punctuation had been established as the writer’s responsibility, readers continued to annotate their books with symbols to help index and recall the information therein. The manicule (☞)–or, if you prefer, the hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, index, or indicator–was a favorite of Renaissance scholars, inked into the margin as a bookmark or aide-mémoire. Gradually, though, the manicule was appropriated by authors and advertisers, and today its pointing finger is more likely to be seen on A-boards than in book margins.
When punctuation was first invented by Aristophanes, librarian at Alexandria in the 4th century BC, he suggested that readers could use middle (·), low (.), and high points (˙) to punctuate writing according to the rules of rhetoric. Despite this, it took another two millennia before the eponymous rhetorical question got its own mark of punctuation. Worried that his readers would not catch such a subtle figure of speech, in the late sixteenth century the English printer Henry Denham created the percontation mark–a reversed question mark–to address the problem.
The only problem with Denham’s plan was that typefaces did not generally include reversed question marks. Though his own books boasted custom-made percontation marks, other printers resorted to blackletter or italic question marks instead. (Some modern reprints have used semicolons, rotated through 180 degrees, while others employ regular question marks.) Faced with a wave of apathy, use of the percontation mark had petered out within fifty years of its birth.
Don Draper has nothing on Martin K. Speckter. The head of his own advertising agency, and with the Wall Street Journal on the books, in 1962 Speckter tried to sell the world a new mark of punctuation. Writing in “Type Talks,” Madison Avenue’s journal of typography, Speckter described the “interrobang” (‽) as a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point (or “bang,” as printers called it) and said that it should be used to punctuate an excited or rhetorical question. Other ad men suggested the names “emphaquest,” “rhet,” and “consternation mark” but Speckter’s own term stuck.
By 1967 the interrobang had found its way into a new font called Americana, and a year later it made its debut on the typewriter keyboard, but its success was short lived. Though Speckter’s mark never quite broke into the mainstream, with the appropriate digital gymnastics you can still conjure one up from your computer keyboard.
The need to punctuate irony–whether a rhetorical question that is not a question at all, or a common-or-garden sarcastic quip–runs deep in the veins of writers and typophiles. Henry Denham tried it in the sixteenth century, and Martin K. Speckter in the twentieth; the twenty-first century, however, is the most ironic yet. The Internet has produced a steady stream of new irony and sarcasm marks, though the “snark” stands out for the thoroughness of its promotion. Building on earlier efforts to rebrand the tilde (~) as a sarcasm mark, an American typographer named Choz Cunningham added a period to the mix (.~) and created a website dedicated to his new mark. That TheSnark.org now points to a generic placeholder page bears witness to the fortunes of the ill-fated snark.
Perhaps the most convincing modern irony mark is a European invention. Commissioned in 2007 for the Dutch national book festival, the ironieteken was created by Bas Jacobs at the type foundry Underware. His graceful zig-zag exclamation mark was designed to blend in with existing marks of punctuation and to be easily written by hand. What Jacobs did not bargain for was that two ironieteken placed next to each other (to punctuate an especially sarcastic exclamation, perhaps) bore not a little resemblance to the insignia of the infamous Nazi SS. Like the percontation mark, the interrobang, and the snark before it, theironieteken never quite achieved critical mass, and it remains sadly absent from our palette of everyday punctuation.
Bullet points are used to draw attention to important information within a document so that a reader can identify the key issues and facts quickly. There are no fixed rules about how to use them, but here are some guidelines.
- The text introducing the list of bullet points should end with a colon.
- If the text that follows the bullet point is not a proper sentence, it doesn’t need to begin with a capital letter and it shouldn’t end with a full stop, for example:
Tonight’s agenda includes:
- annual review of capital gains issues
- outstanding inheritance tax issues
If the text following the bullet point IS a complete sentence, it should begin with a capital letter. A full stop at the end is technically required but is not absolutely essential:
The agenda for tonight is as follows:
- We will conduct an annual review of capital gains issues.
- The senior tax manager will talk about outstanding inheritance tax issues.
Lists of bullet points will have more impact if each one begins with the same word class (or part of speech) and if they are all of a similar length. Action verbs are a good choice for the first word, i.e. verbs that describe the performing of an action. If you do use verbs, make sure that each one is in the same tense. Here’s an example of the effective use of action verbs in a person’s CV/résumé:
Duties and responsibilities included:
- teaching national curriculum to Key Stage 1 pupils
- reaching attainment targets and improving learning performance
- developing extracurricular sports programme
Bullet points tend to have more impact if their text is relatively short. Make sure you use the same typeface and margin width within each section.
Bullet points are visually attractive and make it easy for a reader to locate important information. Nevertheless, try to use them sparingly: too many bullet-pointed sections in the same document will mean that their impact is lost.
A question mark is used to indicate the end of a question:
Have you seen the film yet?
Note that you don’t use a question mark at the end of a question in reported speech:
He asked if I had seen the film yet.
A question mark can also be used in brackets to show that the writer is unconvinced by a statement:
I’m about to get started on the new project, which is apparently quite straightforward (?).
The main use of the exclamation mark is to end sentences that express:
- an exclamation:
Ow! That hurt!
Hello! How are you?
- direct speech that represents something shouted or spoken very loudly:
‘Look up there!’ she yelled.
- something that amuses the writer:
Included on the list of banned items was ‘crochet hooks’!
- An exclamation mark can also be used in brackets after a statement to show that the writer finds it funny or ironic:
She says she’s stopped feeling insecure (!) since she met him.
People tend to use a lot of exclamation marks in informal writing such as emails or text messages, but you should avoid using them in formal writing.
Inverted commas can be single – ‘x’ – or double – ‘’x‘’. They are also known as quotation marks, speech marks, orquotes.
Inverted commas are mainly used in the following cases:
- to mark the beginning and end of direct speech (i.e. a speaker’s words written down exactly as they were spoken):
‘That,’ he said, ‘is nonsense.’
‘What time will he arrive?’ she asked.
See more information about how to use punctuation when you’re writing direct speech.
- to mark off a word or phrase that’s being discussed, or that’s being directly quoted from somewhere else:
He called this phenomenon ‘the memory of water’.
What does ‘integrated circuit’ mean?
Single or double?
There’s no rule about which to use but you should stick to one or the other throughout a piece of writing. Single inverted commas are generally more common in British English while American English tends to prefer double ones.
If you find that you need to enclose quoted material within direct speech or another quotation, use the style you haven’t used already. So, if you’ve been using single inverted commas, put any further quoted material within double ones and vice versa. For example:
She still sounds amazed when she says: ‘We were turned down because “we represented too small a minority of the population”. They could still get away with saying things like that then.’