Weird 19th-Century Punctuation Marks You Should Try Using

Ever heard of the “colash”? Or the “commash”?

Clive Thompson


Writers often worry about overusing punctuation.

This is particularly true of the m-dash. Last year when I released the app Just The Punctuation — which, as the name suggests, takes a piece of your writing and strips out everything but the punctuation — some writers said they were too afraid to try using it. Why? Because it would reveal that they’re wildly profligate users of m-dashes …

Me, I see no problem. I am a huge fan of this much-maligned punctuation mark, so much so that I wrote a follow-up essay arguing the manifold merits of the m-dash. (tl;dr: It’s anarchic, digressive, a connector, and graphically pretty. But go read the whole essay!)

So basically I am Team Punctuation, or perhaps more accurately, Team Aggressive Overuse Of Complex Combos Of Punctuation.

But why don’t we — as they say in energy-drink-marketing circles — take it to the next level?

I’m here to introduce you to three forms of punctuation that you’ve probably never seen before.

They’re from the 19th century. They vanished over a hundred years ago.

And it’s up to us to bring them back.

Meet some truly curious punctuation marks

I first learned of these three back in the late 90s, when I read Nicholson Baker’s collection The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. It includes an essay he wrote for The New York Review of Books called “The History of Punctuation”; it’s a review of Malcolm Parkes’ Pause and Effect, itself a chronology of the use of punctuation in the West.

One of the most intriguing parts of the review is when Baker talks about the Victorian period. Back then, authors commonly used various “dash-hybrid” forms of punctuation. They’d take a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and follow them immediately with an m-dash.

This produced the following marks, which Baker dubbed the “commash”, the…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.