I adore how these little marks allow writers to "conduct" the music that is their sentences and paragraphs. If a writer knows how to use punctuation well, the meaning is clear, rhythms flow, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Fine. That's a slight exaggeration. But the basic concept is sound.
One of my favorite punctuation situations involves hyphenated compound adjectives, because leaving off a hyphen with these little buggers is a classic way of inadvertently creating writer bloopers.
What?! Hyphenated compound adjectives sound as interesting at burnt toast?
Try this on for size:
Not long ago, there was an episode of Monk where sportscaster Bob Costas guest-starred. Bob expressed his gratitude for a time earlier when Monk had saved his life from a situation involving a demented cat salesman.
Bob tells the story to Captain Stottlemeyer of the San Fransisco Police. Since Monk is known for catching murderers and solving apparently unsolvable mysteries, the good Captain and the audience are all picturing the demented cat salesman as some shady dude who sells cats on the side then takes on the role of psycho murderer in his down time.
Bob clarifies: The cat was demented. It tried to kill Bob, not the salesman.
In which case, he wasn't talking about a demented cat salesman.
He was talking about a demented-cat salesman.
Now the image shifts: Bob was nearly killed by something like this:
Amazing what a little hyphen can do, don't ya think?