Welcome to Shady Characters

This is Keith Houston’s blog about the unusual stories behind some well-known — and some rather more outlandish — marks of punctuation. Read a brief introduction, get started with the life and times of the , or pilcrow, or order the book. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+, get email alerts of new posts, or subscribe to RSS feeds for new posts and comments.

Punctuation in Practice: a Workshop

Punctuate_Poster_Final_930My mind is spinning.

Last weekend I attended “Punctuation in Practice”, a workshop on punctuation held at the leafy Dahlem campus of Berlin’s Freie Universität. I was there along with six other participants at the invitation of Dr Elizabeth Bonapfel, a postdoctoral fellow who has written extensively on American and English literature, with a particular focus on James Joyce[1] and a more recent interest in the punctuation of speech in 18th century drama and literature. Other attendees included Charles Lock, professor of English at the university of Copenhagen, Dr Anne Toner of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Dr Stewart Brookes, research associate in digital palaeography at King’s College, London; and suffice it to say the other presenters were not exactly lacking in academic heft, either.

I, on the other hand, am a blogger and writer of popular non-fiction books. (Popular, that is, with reference to their genre, not necessarily their actual popularity.) I was agog.

Our remit, as Elizabeth describes on the workshop’s web page, was as follows:

This international workshop, “Punctuation in Practice,” investigates how punctuation—as a way to organize syntax and mark pauses on the page—changes throughout literary history. The workshop seeks to explore a range of punctuation practices (or lack thereof) from medieval manuscripts through printed drama and poetry to the novel and contemporary literature by bringing together experts from a range of genres and time periods.

This workshop takes as its starting point Adorno’s statement about the historicity of punctuation (“History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation”).[2] With a focus on historical conventions and change, this workshop will explore how punctuation organizes the basic structures underpinning our expectations about literary style, conventions, and genres.

As trepidatious as I was going into the workshop (I was down to open proceedings with a short talk on the history of the pilcrow; as a reader of Shady Characters, of course, you already know it all), I needn’t have worried. My co-presenters suffered my presentation with good grace, and the rest of the two-day workshop passed all too quickly. I have pages of notes filled with books and papers to read, fascinating titbits of punctuation lore, and many statements ending with an elliptical question mark (“…?”) offering new avenues for investigation. Some highlights:

  • At least three of the attendees had been on first name terms with the eminent Malcolm Beckwith Parkes, the man who rewrote the history of punctuation in the west, and whose book, Pause and Effect,[3] was a major source of inspiration for me in writing Shady Characters. According to Charles Lock, once Parkes’ student, Parkes lived next door to crime author Colin Dexter in Oxford, and (I paraphrase) may have been partly responsible for inspiring the character of Inspector Morse — or at least his irascibility. (In an introduction to a later book, Parkes thanked Dexter for helping to improve his writing style.[4])
  • Separately, Stewart Brookes and Mark Faulkner delivered fluent performances of 12th-century Old English manuscripts as part of their respective presentations. A few lines of Beowulf aside, I’ve never read the language nor heard it spoken aloud before, and it was a treat to hear Stewart and Mark perform it so well. It was also a disconcerting experience: Old English has just enough commonality with its modern descendant that I felt that I was skating along the edge of comprehension. In an odd way, it was like watching an episode of Wallander, the Swedish television programme — certain Scots words like “bairn”, “hoose” and “noo” translate more or less directly into Swedish, and I had the same feeling of intermittent understanding as Mark and Stewart regaled us with Ælfric’s medieval prose.
  • As an occasional reader of graphic novels, John Lennard’s trip through Tintin, Watchmen, and Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor was engaging and eye-opening. John proposed an “eight-level scale” of punctuation, leading from letters themselves (which punctuate empty space, as John put it) via the conventional notion of punctuation as discussed here at Shady Characters, and all the way up to books and other works punctuating the space around them. A vertiginous journey, and a thought-provoking idea.

This is not to ignore the other presenters, Anne Toner, Jeffrey Gutierrez and Elizabeth herself, all of whom gave excellent presentations, nor Hannah Hiassen, who choreographed and performed in a work called Punctuate to round off our first day. It was an honour to attend and a privilege to get to know everyone — thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me, and thank you all for being so approachable and so willing to entertain my half-baked ideas!

I must thank Claire M.L. Bourne for her help in unpicking some nuances surrounding the disappearance of the pilcrow, and Nicholas Birchall for the use of an image. Thank you both!
  • [1] E. Bonapfel, Doubtful points : Joyce and punctuation, Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2014. Bibtex

    @book{Bonapfel2014, address = {Amsterdam; New York},
      author = {Bonapfel, Elizabeth},
      isbn = {9789042039018},
      publisher = {Rodopi},
      series = {European Joyce Studies},
      title = {{Doubtful points : Joyce and punctuation}},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [2] T. W. Adorno and S. W. Nicholsen, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review, vol. 48, iss. 3, pp. 300-305, 1990. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4612221> Bibtex

    @article{Adorno1990,
      author = {Adorno, Theodor W and Nicholsen, Shierry Weber},
      issn = {00035769},
      journal = {The Antioch Review},
      keywords = {punctuation},
      mendeley-tags = {punctuation},
      number = {3},
      pages = {300--305},
      publisher = {Antioch Review, Inc.},
      title = {{Punctuation Marks}},
      url = {http://www.jstor.org/stable/4612221},
      volume = {48},
      year = {1990}
    }
  • [3] M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, University of California Press, 1993. <http://www.worldcat.org/title/pause-and-effect-an-introduction-to-the-history-of-punctuation-in-the-west/oclc/24871039> Bibtex

    @book{MBP1993, abstract = {We often take punctuation for granted, but its evolution has been largely responsible for our ability to communicate meaning and convey emphasis with the written word. Believing that the best way to understand usage is to study it historically, Parkes focuses on how marks have actually been used. He cites examples from a wide range of literary texts from different periods and languages; the examples and plates also provide the reader with an opportunity to test Parkes's observations. This long-awaited book will no doubt stimulate debate among writers, editors, literary critics, philosophers, linguists, rhetoricians, and historians. It is destined to become a standard reference work for anyone interested in the history and use of language.},
      author = {Parkes, M. B.},
      isbn = {0520079418},
      keywords = {pilcrow,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {pilcrow,shady\_characters},
      month = feb, publisher = {University of California Press},
      shorttitle = {Pause and Effect},
      title = {{Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West}},
      type = {Book},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/title/pause-and-effect-an-introduction-to-the-history-of-punctuation-in-the-west/oclc/24871039},
      year = {1993}
    }
  • [4] M. Parkes, Their hands before our eyes : a closer look at scribes : the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999, Aldershot; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Bibtex

    @book{Parkes2008, address = {Aldershot; Burlington, VT},
      author = {Parkes, M},
      isbn = {9780754663379},
      publisher = {Ashgate},
      title = {{Their hands before our eyes : a closer look at scribes : the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999}},
      year = {2008}
    }
  • [5] P. Durkin, “The history of English,” in Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-history-of-english> Bibtex

    @misc{Durkin2015, address = {Oxford},
      author = {Durkin, Philip},
      booktitle = {Oxford Dictionaries Online},
      keywords = {The history of English,grammar questions,language learning,language usage,punctuation,reference content,spelling},
      publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {{The history of English}},
      url = {http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-history-of-english},
      urldate = {2015-06-28}
    }

A reminder: how to subscribe to Shady Characters

There have been a welter of informative and thought-provoking comments here lately (including some from Choz Cunningham, inventor of the snark, or “.~”), but all this activity is sometimes a little hard to follow. As such, I thought I’d post a reminder that it’s possible to subscribe directly to posts and to comments via dedicated RSS feeds.

If you don’t already use an RSS reader, well, the best way to describe it is to say that it’s a bit like email, only notifications are sent out by websites rather than by individuals, and it does not require you to sign over any personal data. It’s a great way to keep up with blogs and other websites. This article at The Verge can help you pick a suitable RSS reader program or service, many of which are free.

You can subscribe to any one or more of the following feeds:

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If you’re interested in the discussion related to a particular post, you can find the RSS for individual posts and pages by appending “feed/” to the end of that page’s URL. For instance, comments for this page are available at http://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/2015/06/how-to-subscribe/feed/.

Of course, you can still sign up for good old-fashioned email notifications of new posts, too. Please drop me a line if you have any questions or suggestions about how best I can keep readers up to date with new posts and comments here at Shady Characters.

Thanks to all commenters, old and new, and keep your comments coming!

It’s (traditional Chinese) paperback publication day!

The Chinese (complex characters) edition of Shady Characters, as designed by Chang Lien Hung and published by Rye Field.Another day, another edition of Shady Characters! The handsome book on the right is the Chinese complex characters (also called traditional characters) edition, courtesy of Taiwan’s Rye Field Publications. The cover design is by Chang Lien Hung, aka elf-19, and I can promise you that it is far better looking in real life than my terrible photo makes it out to be. It is available now for ¥360. I’d love to hear what Chinese-literate readers might think of it — if you lay your hands on a copy, please leave a comment below or drop me a line via the contact form!
In unrelated but still exciting news, Oxford University Press recently named “hashtag” as children’s word of the year. Twitter says that it does not allow users under the age of 13, but it turns out that children, in Britain at least, are using hashtags in everyday language as a kind of intensifier or keyword marker. As The Guardian’s Mark Brown explains, “A child might write: ‘This is a wonderful day, #sunny,’ for example, or: ‘I have the best family, #fantasticfamily’.” This is the hash mark as a sort of front-loaded exclamation mark, perhaps, or an alternative to cumbersome parentheses.

Apropos of this, I was lucky enough to be asked to film a short video about the octothorpe for CBBC’s Newsround, a news programme for 6–12 year-olds, so I fired up my webcam and talked into it for a couple of minutes with only a moderate amount of self-consciousness. You can see the full item here. I must thank Newsround’s Ricky Boleto for giving me the chance to take part — Newsround has been on the air since 1972, and it was a pleasure to be able to contribute to a programme that I remember well from my own childhood!

Miscellany № 62: the absence of punctuation

Just the one punctuation-related link this week: Shady Characters is upping sticks and moving to London this coming week, and blogging time is scarce!
So: to Canada, where the National Post recently reported on a PhD thesis that contains no conventional punctuation.[6] Submitted to the University of British Columbia by architect Patrick Stewart, a member of the Nisga’a First Nation, each of the chapters of Stewart’s dissertation opens with a summary written in standard academic English but the bulk of the work is presented without uppercase letters, full stops or commas. Stewart holds a select few marks in reserve for more troublesome concepts — a forward slash “connects words of similar meaning / emphasis”; an ellipsis “indicates a continuity of thought”; and the question mark survives intact — but, on the whole, his thesis is, as he describes it, “one long, run-on sentence, from cover to cover”.

Here’s an example, taken from Stewart’s own explanation of his unconventional approach:

in my defense   my style of writing is not laziness or lack of knowledge of proper usage of the english language   it is a form of grammatical resistance as a deconstructionist   in the manner of many writers   especially american poet ee cummings   he graduated with a master degree in english from harvard university and they called him experimental and innovative   not words likely to be used to describe an indigenous writer who breaks all the rules of writing (the behavioural ethics board at the university of british columbia suggested that i hire an editor as it appeared that i did not know the english language)   times though   they are changing[7]

The most striking aspect of the text — at least at first glance — is its deliberately architectural layout. Indents and white space are liberally employed to shape the text, narrowing it where the reader’s focus is demanded, broadening it for a more expansive feel, and l e t t e r s p a c i n g words for emphasis. And though Stewart quotes Peter Cole, another indigenous writer, to the effect that “the idea of paragraph [sic] is meaningless”,[8] for me the paragraph is very much in evidence in Stewart’s writing. If anything, I’d suggest that he has taken the idea of the paragraph and broadened it, augmenting the familiar single-level paragraph with super- and sub-paragraphs that depend on their level of indentation and placement on the page.

After I had read a few pages, however, I stopped noticing the shape of the text and started to appreciate how it was punctuated. This, I think, is where the National Post gets it wrong: there may be very few marks of punctuation in Dr Stewart’s thesis, but it is rich with punctuation in its most elemental form. Created by Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian at Alexandria in the third century, the very first marks of punctuation — his ‘middle’ (‘·’), ‘under’ (‘.’) and ‘final’ (‘˙’) dots — marked pauses of increasing duration to help readers perform a text aloud, and Dr Stewart spaces out his clauses to varying degrees to exactly the same effect. As he explains: “writing this dissertation […] reinforced my culture by reinforcing my writing as spoken word   part of an oral tradition that has existed since time immemorial”.

For my money, Dr Stewart’s approach has worked surprisingly well. As I read his thesis, I found myself mentally replaying his words, trying to decide how I would read them aloud and, in doing so, divining the logical structure of the text as I went. This   is not lack of punctuation   but rather an alternative means of punctuation   and a thought-provoking one at that.

A tip of the hat to Mark Liberman at the ever-informative Language Log blog for sharing this story.
  • [1] E. Bonapfel, Doubtful points : Joyce and punctuation, Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2014. Bibtex

    @book{Bonapfel2014, address = {Amsterdam; New York},
      author = {Bonapfel, Elizabeth},
      isbn = {9789042039018},
      publisher = {Rodopi},
      series = {European Joyce Studies},
      title = {{Doubtful points : Joyce and punctuation}},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [2] T. W. Adorno and S. W. Nicholsen, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review, vol. 48, iss. 3, pp. 300-305, 1990. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4612221> Bibtex

    @article{Adorno1990,
      author = {Adorno, Theodor W and Nicholsen, Shierry Weber},
      issn = {00035769},
      journal = {The Antioch Review},
      keywords = {punctuation},
      mendeley-tags = {punctuation},
      number = {3},
      pages = {300--305},
      publisher = {Antioch Review, Inc.},
      title = {{Punctuation Marks}},
      url = {http://www.jstor.org/stable/4612221},
      volume = {48},
      year = {1990}
    }
  • [3] M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, University of California Press, 1993. <http://www.worldcat.org/title/pause-and-effect-an-introduction-to-the-history-of-punctuation-in-the-west/oclc/24871039> Bibtex

    @book{MBP1993, abstract = {We often take punctuation for granted, but its evolution has been largely responsible for our ability to communicate meaning and convey emphasis with the written word. Believing that the best way to understand usage is to study it historically, Parkes focuses on how marks have actually been used. He cites examples from a wide range of literary texts from different periods and languages; the examples and plates also provide the reader with an opportunity to test Parkes's observations. This long-awaited book will no doubt stimulate debate among writers, editors, literary critics, philosophers, linguists, rhetoricians, and historians. It is destined to become a standard reference work for anyone interested in the history and use of language.},
      author = {Parkes, M. B.},
      isbn = {0520079418},
      keywords = {pilcrow,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {pilcrow,shady\_characters},
      month = feb, publisher = {University of California Press},
      shorttitle = {Pause and Effect},
      title = {{Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West}},
      type = {Book},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/title/pause-and-effect-an-introduction-to-the-history-of-punctuation-in-the-west/oclc/24871039},
      year = {1993}
    }
  • [4] M. Parkes, Their hands before our eyes : a closer look at scribes : the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999, Aldershot; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Bibtex

    @book{Parkes2008, address = {Aldershot; Burlington, VT},
      author = {Parkes, M},
      isbn = {9780754663379},
      publisher = {Ashgate},
      title = {{Their hands before our eyes : a closer look at scribes : the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999}},
      year = {2008}
    }
  • [5] P. Durkin, “The history of English,” in Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-history-of-english> Bibtex

    @misc{Durkin2015, address = {Oxford},
      author = {Durkin, Philip},
      booktitle = {Oxford Dictionaries Online},
      keywords = {The history of English,grammar questions,language learning,language usage,punctuation,reference content,spelling},
      publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {{The history of English}},
      url = {http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-history-of-english},
      urldate = {2015-06-28}
    }
  • [6] B. Hutchinson, “UBC student writes 52,438 word architecture dissertation with no punctuation — not everyone loved it,” in National Post. Vancouver: 2015. <http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/ubc-student-writes-52438-word-architecture-dissertation-with-no-punctuation-not-everyone-loved-it> Bibtex

    @misc{Hutchinson2015, address = {Vancouver},
      author = {Hutchinson, Brian},
      booktitle = {National Post},
      keywords = {canada,news,patrick stewart,university of british columbia},
      month = may, title = {{UBC student writes 52,438 word architecture dissertation with no punctuation — not everyone loved it}},
      url = {http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/ubc-student-writes-52438-word-architecture-dissertation-with-no-punctuation-not-everyone-loved-it},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [7] Patrick Robert Reid Stewart, “Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge : Dim sagalts’apkw nisim,” PhD Thesis , University of British Columbia, 2015. <https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/52998/ubc_2015_september_stewart_patrick.pdf> Bibtex

    @phdthesis{PatrickRobertReidStewart2015,
      author = {{Patrick Robert Reid Stewart}},
      school = {University of British Columbia},
      title = {{Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge : Dim sagalts’apkw nisim}},
      url = {https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/52998/ubc\_2015\_september\_stewart\_patrick.pdf},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [8] P. Cole, Coyote Raven Go Canoeing: Coming Home to the Village, McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2006. <https://books.google.com/books?id=O-1wsVxYQicC&pgis=1> Bibtex

    @book{Cole2006, abstract = {In a gesture toward traditional First Nations orality, Peter Cole blends poetic and dramatic voices with storytelling. A conversation between two tricksters, Coyote and Raven, and the colonized and the colonizers, his narrative takes the form of a canoe journey. Cole draws on traditional Aboriginal knowledge to move away from the western genres that have long contained, shaped, and determined ab/originality. Written in free verse, Coyote and Raven Go Canoeing is meant to be read aloud and breaks new ground by making orality the foundation of its scholarship. Cole moves beyond the rhetoric and presumption of white academic (de/re)colonizers to aboriginal spaces recreated by aboriginal peoples. Rather than employing the traditional western practice of gathering information about exoticized other, demonized other, contained other, Coyote and Raven Go Canoeing is a celebration of aboriginal thought, spirituality, and practice, a sharing of lived experience as First Peoples.},
      author = {Cole, Peter},
      isbn = {0773529136},
      pages = {337},
      publisher = {McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP},
      title = {{Coyote Raven Go Canoeing: Coming Home to the Village}},
      url = {https://books.google.com/books?id=O-1wsVxYQicC\&pgis=1},
      year = {2006}
    }

Pilcrows in the service of science: a Shady Characters field trip

At the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh on the city’s Blackford Hill, in the depths of its oldest building, is a locked, climate-controlled room. That room is a library, and it houses the world’s most important collection of antiquarian books on astronomy.

I’ve been working up at the observatory for the past few months and, recently, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of this priceless collection of scientific books. Here, then, are a few of the highlights of that tour — chosen by dint of the notability of their punctuation, of course — that take in medieval manuscripts through to Renaissance printed books. I hope you enjoy perusing them as much as I did!

Pilcrows in Alhazen [965-1040]: De aspectibus. (c. 1250)

Alhazen [965-1040]: De aspectibus (c. 1250). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This handwritten book, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise on optics written around 1000, shows the pilcrow in two different roles. First, and most obvious, each note is introduced by a tall, snake-like pilcrow; second, in the text itself, paragraphs are separated by a two dots and a pilcrow, like this: ‘•¶•’.

What is perhaps most striking about this page is the material it is made from: look carefully and you will be able to discern a dimpling, or grain, in its surface, a sign that it is made from animal skin parchment. The skin has been scraped so thin that it is almost translucent — this is “vellum”, properly speaking, or fine calfskin parchment — and the writing on the reverse of the leaf is clearly visible. In some cases, in fact, oiled parchment was used for window panes, letting light in even as it kept out the draughts.

Jordanus Nemorarius [1225-1260]: De ratione ponderum. (c. 1290). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

Jordanus Nemorarius [1225-1260]: De ratione ponderum (c. 1290). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This late thirteenth-century manuscript, on the subject of what we would now call “mechanics”, is a great example of the scribe’s craft. Again, it is made of vellum; initial letters are picked out in contrasting red and black ink; the introductory paragraph in each section is enlarged to draw the eye; and the margins are littered with diagrams related to the text. Hidden among the text are a number of Tironian ets (), early Roman “and”-signs shaped like barred, Germanic 7s.
Nicholas Copernicus [1473-1543]: De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1st. edition) (Nuremberg, 1543). ‘On the revolution of the heavenly bodies’.

Nicholas Copernicus [1473-1543]: De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1st. edition) (Nuremberg, 1543). ‘On the revolution of the heavenly bodies’. (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This is a lovely, lovely printed book. A first edition copy of Nicholas Copernicus’s influential De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or “On the revolution of the heavenly bodies”, it is remarkably well-preserved for a four-hundred-and-seventy-year-old book. Running heads, chapter numbers, chapter titles, justified text and line-end hyphens (looking like mathematical equals signs) are all present and correct, and the typeface is almost startlingly readable. And the ampersands! The page is liberally sprinkled with them, and they are fine specimens indeed.
Footnotes in Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]: Harmonice mundi. (Linz, 1619) ‘Harmony of the world’

Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]: Harmonice mundi (Linz, 1619). ‘Harmony of the world’. (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This page, taken from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonice mundi, or ‘Harmony of the world’, shows the asterisk at work as a reference mark, linking the main text to a marginal note. Notes linked to the text by symbols like this first appeared as early as the twelfth century, though Kepler’s book is somewhat behind the times: the first footnote proper, where the note lay at the bottom of the page rather than in the margin, had appeared some fifty years earlier.

In this work, Kepler used ratios derived from the movements of the planets to construct musical scores (as shown here), and proposed his third law of planetary motion, which related the period of a planet’s orbit to its distance from the sun.

Many thanks to Rob Tweedie for arranging our visit to the Crawford Collection, and to Karen Moran for her engaging and informative tour. You can read more about the Crawford Collection and some of its most important books in this document hosted at the Royal Observatory’s web site.