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Thursday, January 5, 2012

A story on dots, periods with some good points, too


What’s the difference between a dot, a point and a period?

That may sound like the set-up to a tasteless joke regarding menstrual cycles, but it is not. I’m serious.

How did this, the tiniest designation in every printed language, come to mean so much to so many?

It’s invariably the smallest item on any printed page.

Take a closer look:

“ . ”

No bigger than bug dung, it is. I could enlarge this 12-point mark to something like 64-point type, but you get the point. It’s a very small black spot. Butterfly tears have more volume.

Note I said 64 “point” type. Not dot type or period type. Point is a size designation used in graphics and print media.

So there are many kinds of points and many kinds of periods. I’ve been to Point Roberts, Washington, and studied tedious literature from the Elizabethan Period.

There are even a variety of dots. I go to the movies and have trouble resisting those stale Dots jellied candies even though I know they’re capable of extracting decades-old fillings from my molars.

And everyone called my late mother-in-law Dot. At about 5-foot-7, she was probably something like a 600,000 point Dot.

It’s the nearly invisible same thing that serves three distinct functions.

It is the dot in dotcom, the point in version 2.1 and the period at the end of nearly every sentence.

Its most common usage is to convey conclusions, yet when three of them are strung together they mean something that goes on and on, as when the romance novelists mean to extend the drama.

“Spent from her carnal lusts, Chastity fell fast asleep in the cuddle puddle as Tristan beseeched her in vain, ‘Am I the father? Chastity? Chastity? Chastity . . .’”

I learned to be a crackerjack dictation taker -- trust me, it doesn’t pay -- by listening to expert Tennessee reporters transmit breaking news details over the phone with each link of punctuation enunciated for clarity.

Consider, for instance: “The hillbilly widow said, ‘Burt was devoured by the rusty thresher.’” That simple sentence would be dictated as such, “The hillbilly widow said comma quote Burt was devoured by the rusty thresher period end quote paragraph.”

It would have thrown me if the reporter said dot or point instead of period, but really it would make more sense if it were one or the other.

For instance, what if the reporter was dictating a story about an actress who had to cancel her role in a period drama because her period was debilitating?

It would devolve into an Abbott & Costello farce.

Much of the confusion can be laid at the feet of those masters at digitally creating it, those who gave us the internet.

They are the reason why we have dot coms instead of period coms, the reason we have version two point one instead of version two period one. They took a perfectly utilitarian flake of punctuation and turned it into a blizzard of keyboard chaos.

They are identical and, in fact, occupy the same key stroke. It would be easier to pick out differences in the dorky Gosselin kids than differentiating between dot, point or period.

I suppose the reason I am writing about this today is I was reminded of book I read last year about this very topic. It was an honest-to-goodness, 200-page book about the history of the period. The cover had a big dot on top and a subhead about the history of the world’s most consequential piece of punctuation.

Brilliant, I remember thinking. All hail arcane information!

Alas, it was a huge disappointment.

Who could imagine a book about the period could be so utterly pointless?

I remember thinking, “Wow, if some publisher was foolish enough to pay for this, they’ll go crazy for my crap!”

Wrong, again.

I can only guess they probably blew their budget on advances for a book about commas.

Oh, well. Enough for now. Time for me to dash -- and dash is a sprawling punctuational story for another day.

As it would be unfair to conclude a story about the multi-faceted uses for the tiny powerful circle by giving the period the final say, I must let each share the stage for the final bow as I bid you adieu. See if you can guess which is which!

‘til we meet again . . .

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