As I mentioned last time, I recently took part in a workshop on the subject of “punctuation in practice”. My presentation there was titled “Ghostwritten: the vanishing pilcrow”, and it traced the life of the paragraph mark from ancient marginal dash (—) to medieval capitulum (¢) to pilcrow (¶), as shown in the slide reproduced above, and finally to empty space, or paragraph indent ( ) — all things I’ve talked about here, and in the Shady Characters book, at some length.
But bear with me for a moment.
To recap, the pilcrow had lived happily in the pages of handwritten texts for centuries, added to manuscripts by specialist “rubricators” (scribes who added decorative flourishes in contrasting ink), when movable type barged its way onto the scene in the middle of the fifteenth century. This put the squeeze on the pilcrow from three distinct directions. First, typefounders never quite believed that pilcrows needed to be cast in type: when there is an entire class of worker (and there has been for centuries) whose only job is to add pilcrows, decorative capitals and their kin to the written or printed page, why bother designing, cutting, and casting those same characters and devices? Thus, the pilcrow was far less prevalent in early fonts than, say, the full stop or the semicolon. Second, the sheer volume of printed texts, peppered with double-slash (//) placeholders* indicating where pilcrows were to be added by hand, far outstripped the ability of rubricators to fill in those waiting gaps — pilcrows could not always be printed for lack of type, and they could not always be rubricated for lack of time. This all led to the third nail in the pilcrow’s coffin: as readers got used to navigating the page by means of the gaps left by missing pilcrows, the mark itself became less and less relevant.† The pilcrow, as we have heard time and again, was killed by the arrival of printing.
The question, now, is this: is the paragraph itself destined to die just as the mark that once delineated it has disappeared from sight?
That’s the thesis behind Andy Bodle’s recent article at The Guardian, entitled “Breaking point: is the writing on the wall for the paragraph?” Ignoring, for a moment, Betteridge’s law of headlines (“any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”), the main thrust of Bodle’s argument is that the arrival of the Internet — like movable type, a revolutionary form of information technology — is exerting a “downward pressure on paragraph length”:
Most online gurus caution against blogposts of more than 600 words; some insist that the ideal length is 200. Internet users, they cry, can’t be bothered to scroll through long articles. Last year, the bosses at Associated Press circulated a memo stipulating that stories be between 300 and 500 words long (exceptions can be made — up to a whopping 700 words — for events of global importance). At the same time, the UK government’s website, gov.uk, promised that it would never publish a sentence exceeding 25 words. […] Reading on a laptop screen or phone is slower and more fatiguing, and it’s harder to keep your place; inserting regular, clear breaks (complete lines rather than indentations) is one way to create a smoother reading experience.
Bodle also makes the point that newspapers, where narrow columns reward frequent indentation, and news media in general, where an objective viewpoint is prized above all, discourage long, discursive paragraphs. Certainly, having picked the current headline story from Reuters (“Euro zone summit aims to keep Greece in single currency”), I count only twenty-five sentences in twenty-four paragraphs (did the writer forget to press “return” after one particular sentence, I wonder?). And this is not, to my eye, an isolated incident. The BBC, writing on the same subject, is little better, and it is just one of the many news outlets that seem to have adopted an atomic approach to paragraphing.
Technological advances, then, carry both opportunities and dangers for the written word. Printing edged out the pilcrow; the typewriter did a number on the em and en dashes and many other uncommon marks; the Internet, in turn, is doing its damndest to kill the paragraph. I’ve lost count of the number of blogs and other websites that treat sentences and paragraphs as interchangeable units of sense and whose staccato delivery is often accompanied by the demarcation of paragraphs by blank lines rather than paragraph indents.
And yet, as disconcerting as I find these changes, I’m doing my best to stay as open-minded as I can about them. Every component of the way we communicate via the written word — our letters, the marks and spaces between them, their arrangement on the page — is and has always been subject to change under pressure of convention, technology, and fashion. Maybe the pulverisation of the paragraph is nothing more than a stylistic tic adopted by writers who need to broaden their reading horizons beyond news websites, or perhaps it’s a deeper trend, an inexorable product of the tiny screens on which we communicate with the world. I honestly don’t know, but I’ll be intrigued to see how the paragraph weathers this next great shift in writing technology.
What are your experiences? Have any writers among you come under any pressure to atomise your paragraphs, or to otherwise restructure your writing for the web?
- The “//” mark was a holdover from a twelfth-century system of punctuation that included only horizontal and sloping dashes. See Shady Characters, the book, for more details. ↩︎
- Thanks again to Claire M. L. Bourne, whose article, “Dramatic Pilcrows”, helped me distil the factors behind the demise of the pilcrow into a coherent story. ↩︎