A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 4

As you might have guessed from my articles on the pilcrow, I have rather a soft spot for this particular mark of punctuation. And though I wasn’t brave enough to emulate Eric Gill’s use of the pilcrow to demarcate paragraphs here on Shady Characters, I read with interest about the recent efforts of two separate web developers to civilise the unruly state of paragraphing on the web.

First, Nathan C. Ford writes at length about the online habit of separating paragraphs with blank lines, decrying the disconnected “islands of thought” that result from this practice. Although acknowledging this may be appropriate for certain forms of text — news stories, for example, where each paragraph is dedicated to a separate fact — Ford goes on to practise what he preaches, providing a bookmarklet to instantly convert blank-line paragraphs to the more traditional indented system.

Next, though, I read with glee a tweet by one Justin Stach, who, in reply to Ford’s article, says simply: “I couldn’t resist making a pilcrow version.” Instead of indenting paragraphs, Stach’s “Pilcrow It!” bookmarklet runs them together and separates them with a single, proud red pilcrow. It works brilliantly on the majority of pages at Shady Characters, and I encourage you to give it a try!


On the subject of Eric Gill, John Boardley of I Love Typography mentions an exhibition of Gill’s typography at Tama Art University in Tokyo. If that’s a little far afield for you, the Special Collections department of the Library of the University of Amsterdam is currently showing The printed book: a visual history, an exhibition “devoted to printers’ manuals, illuminating the printing process, and also to type specimens and writing masters’ copybooks, placing letterforms in a broader context.” Neither exhibition, unfortunately, is previewed in detail on their respective websites, but if you can make it, both look to be well worth a visit.

7 comments on “Miscellany № 4

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    You might be interested in the use of the pilcrow at the articles of Tim Bray’s blog. (I’ve linked to the most recent article, but any will do.) Position the mouse just after the end of the first paragraph of any section with a boldface subtitle, and you’ll see a faint purple pilcrow appear. This is a link to the section.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John,

      These are apparently called ‘WinerLinks’, after Dave Winer of the prototypical blog Scripting News. Dave uses an octothorpe — one per paragraph, and they’re always visible — instead of a pilcrow, but it’s essentially the same concept.

      I do like the idea, and I spent a little time investigating something similar for Shady Characters, but placing a pilcrow at the end of a paragraph seems a little disingenuous after having gone into so much detail about why they rightfully belong at the start.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Well, if you are going to have the pilcrow appear and disappear, it really needs to be at the end, or the text would be moving about.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John,

      I quite agree. If I did introduce per-paragraph links, I’d try to move beyond showing/hiding a single character — highlighting the entire paragraph on mouse over, perhaps, or something similar. I may have to have another look at this!

  3. Comment posted by Owen on

    I am a little late to this discussion, but I feel compelled to comment on this one. Why do people feel the need to name a technological implementation (i.e., the paragraph-level marks used in linking) of a long established print device after a person who is (allegedly) the first one to implement it in a given medium? That is not intended as a slight to either Dave Winer or yourself, but honestly, these sorts of reference devices have been around for centuries. What is wrong with ‘paragraph reference mark’ or ‘paralink’ or similar? I worry that many of the people on the net these days have never picked up a book that dates from prior to their own existence.
    Re. the idea of a paragraph mark at the beginning of a paragraph, perhaps consider hanging the mark in the margin? Personally I only like the use of paragraph marks when used in a continuous river of text, otherwise they seem superfluous. Display them all the time as an obvious link.
    Your blog remains interesting, as ever. Best wishes.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Owen,

      I’m not particularly exercised one way or the other about the names for ‘WinerLinks’, though I do think it’s a useful shorthand for something which a) acts as a permalink to a particular paragraph, and b) is always visible at the end of that paragraph. ‘Paragraph link’ might be a sensible catch-all term, but other potential designs (such as the one you mention, with the mark hung in the margin before the paragraph) could still merit their own distinct names.

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Actually the purpose of WinerLinks (aka purple numbers, q.v. in Wikipedia) is to enable a user to hotlink to a particular paragraph on a page, instead of instructing his users to scroll down to such and such. Among the mainstream sites that implement this is the New York Times. The pilcrows or octothorps show you where the links will point to.

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