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Period Piece

Where credit is due the little black circle.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By KARI BARBIC
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On the Dot

The Speck That Changed the World

by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez

Oxford, 272 pp., $24.95

Look! There on the page. It's a crumb .  .  . it's a stain .  .  . no, it's super dot--come to save the sentence from rambling.

The dot, however, can do so much more than bring a sentence to its close, as the Humez brothers would like to remind us in On the Dot. And in order to prepare us for their treatise on the dot, the brothers Humez invite readers, in the preface, to "imagine for a moment what the world would be like if it awoke one morning to discover that during the night the dot had completely disappeared as though it had never been."

The horror! No, really. Take a moment. Imagine. Endless sentences. Gone are the semicolons and colons, and the other remaining end marks. They could not stand without the dot's faithful support. The comma would be in position to take frightening prominence, for who could take the humble dot's place? Surely not the # sign.

Obviously, the dot is not in grave danger, and the Humez brothers are not suggesting that it is. Instead, they seek to bring to light those corners of our lives where the dot has infiltrated without much notice or appreciation. The eradication of the dot is not being called for, nor is it likely to be; the dot is well anchored in our daily usage in so many ways that it cannot be removed without grave consequences and mass confusion.

The dot is in a different kind of danger--shocking though it may seem--facing, perhaps, the most frightening fate any punctuation mark might experience: being overlooked. Begging the question, what if a sentence ended with a period and no one noticed? After all, we feel morally superior when we find a typo in the New York Times (or THE WEEKLY STANDARD, for that matter) or better yet, when we find a punctuation error in a grammar book. But do we stop to notice all the times when punctuation is used correctly? Do these triumphs of the human intellect, and typesetting, earn our admiration? Of course not. Such effusion would be like applauding everybody who walks down the hallway without tripping.

As readers may have noticed, there's been a sort of grammar-awareness revival in recent years. From Lynne Truss's best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2004) to the founding of National Punctuation Day (September 24) that same year, awareness is indisputably on the rise. Yet this renaissance is not necessarily marked by widespread, improved usage but by an obsession with the marks themselves. Actions by enthusiasts such as the grammar vigilantes at TEAL (Typo Eradication Advancement League)--arrested for vandalizing a historic sign in Grand Canyon National Park while "typo hunting" last summer--do not help educate the public on correct punctuation. They merely spread grammatically correct graffiti.

To their credit, the Humez brothers take us beyond grammar vigilantism and demonstrate that even the most common punctuation marks serve a purpose beyond grammar. They focus on the history and use of the dot and those punctuation marks where it resides (semicolons, question marks, ellipses, etc.). They delve into uses of the dot beyond punctuation, in Morse Code and musical notation and mathematical and computational punctuation. And since there is only so much to be said about the dot itself, they take readers down many a winding rabbit trail exploring English usage and etymology.

So while the dot has certainly left its mark in our culture, and continues to do so, you have to wonder at the purpose of fixating on the mark itself. A sentence is defined as "a complete thought," not as "a group of words that ends with a dot." Yes, punctuation has played a crucial role in lending clarity to the written word, and will continue to do so; but man's ability to communicate long antedates the dot's punctuational prominence. So is the dot truly The Speck That Changed the World? It has certainly been there to lend assistance to developing forms of communication. But regardless of its role and historic influence, the dot should be most proud of its fundamental, and most conspicuous, role: fully stopping a sentence.

In this capacity, it remains the last, and most effective, bulwark between mankind and the eternal run-on.

Kari Barbic is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.