A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 13

After the New York Times’ article “Semicolons: a love story” mentioned here last time, Mary Norris of the New Yorker has weighed in with a rather more measured piece entitled “Semicolons; So Tricky”. Where do Shady Characters’ readers sit on this mark, I wonder? Is use of the semicolon a matter of taste or an essential part of writing?


Also mentioned here recently was Conrad Altmann’s site Glyphaday. Conrad has recently moved his focus from individual characters to the glyph-by-glyph creation of the entire alphabet. It’s a great opportunity to see a new typeface being crafted piece by piece, and there are still some tidbits (such as this assertive asterisk) to be had for punctuation-philes.


The long s, or ‘ſ’, isn’t exactly a mark of punctuation, though I think it still more than qualifies as a Shady Character. It will be making a guest appearance in the book, but until then Andrew West’s exhaustive article “The Long and the Short of the Letter S” is well worth a look. That’s all for now; the 1st September deadline for handing in the Shady Characters manuscript is looming ever larger, so I have to cut things a little short. Wish me luck!

12 comments on “Miscellany № 13

  1. Comment posted by beslayed on

    The ſ/s alternation always reminds me of the Greek σ/ς alternation. Is there any connection, or is similarity of these two patterns purely coincidental?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi beslayed — thanks for the comment!

      I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the distinction between the two forms of sigma to comment on their origins or on any connection with ‘ſ’ and ‘s’. Coincidentally, however, a couple of weeks ago I happened to talk with a Greek friend-of-a-friend about exactly this subject. He said that words without the correct, closing ‘ς’ looked “angry”. It was interesting for me to hear that; without conventionally-applied alternate letterforms in English, I can’t imagine what it must be like to come across such a mistake.

  2. Comment posted by Logan on

    I use the semicolon more than most (and, indeed, most punctuation marks more than most) because I like to write in connected but separate phrases and use slightly more convoluted sentence construction.
    When I read, a semicolon is an indication to hold the sound of the last syllable for longer, whereas a comma gives short emphasis to the last syllable and a period gives the last syllable a drop in tone, indicating finality.

    One punctuation mark that would be very useful to introduce to everyday writing is the beat. When actors mark up their scripts, they add a single quote mark to indicate a slight pause; this is often necessary, along with emphasized words, to ensure the natural ebb and flow that aids comprehension.

  3. Comment posted by Charlie on

    I am addicted to the semi-colon and its close, and often misunderstood cousin, the em dash. I like the spaces they create. They are a lovely grey in the black and whites of commas and full stops (as Logan suggests). I may need intervention though, as I like them so much, I would like a semi-colon tattoo!

  4. Comment posted by Conrad on

    Thanks for the mention Keith! As this is my first full alphabet, I’m trying to figure things out as I go. Such as, do I align the x-height with the crossbars; or do I go with a more organic approach. Any commentary/direction from typophiles out there is welcome.

  5. Comment posted by Nancy Upper on

    Keith, how do I email you one-to-one to invite you to contribute to the book I am writing about the ampersand? Your fine writing fits well into one particular chapter. Specifics to follow when we correspond.
    Thank you.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Thanks! With less than a week to go I am beginning to feel the urgency of the situation. Still, things are going reasonably well, and the blog will soon awaken from its slumber!

  6. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

    I love the semicolon. Perhaps I love it too much. Anytime I do a spell and grammarcheck in MS Word, it redflags quite a few semicolons. I leave them in, of course.

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