A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 66: catching up

Things have been frantic around here lately. Mostly, I’ve been busy reviewing the proofs of The Book, of which more soon, but I’ve also written a pair of articles for other publications, both of which were a lot of fun to address.

First up is this review for the Wall Street Journal of David Crystal’s new book, Making a Point: The Per(s)nickety Story of English Punctuation. (The optional s appears on the American edition.) David’s book combines a brief but entertaining history of punctuation in English with a series of short, pragmatic chapters on modern usage. He sticks with the standard marks — the comma, colon, full stop et al — but his anecdotes and asides make this a lively little book. Not as preachy as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves and, dare I say, playing a straighter bat than Shady Characters, I’d heartily recommend it to readers here.*

My second article is this one, published recently at Mental Floss: The Evolution of Punctuating Paragraphs Through 5 Specific Markers. It is (spoiler!) a survey of paragraph marks and typography through the ages, starting with the paragraphos and ending up at the Internet’s favourite paragraph style, the blank line, taking in the pilcrow and illuminated manuscripts along the way. Have a read, and feel free to leave any comments or questions here.

Separately, I was happy to come across an article in The Guardian about the arrival of the ellipsis in English literature. It quotes Dr Anne Toner, who I met a few months back at Punctuation in Practice, on how this odd little practice made its way from factual books into fiction. The first ellipses in fiction (in drama, in fact) were created in the 16th century using hyphens rather than dots (-‌-‌-‌-), but things moved on rapidly from there:

By the 18th century, said Toner, it “becomes very common in print, and blanking starts to be used as a means of avoiding libel laws”, with series of dots starting to be seen in English works, as well as hyphens and dashes, to mark an ellipsis.

Embraced by writers from Percy Shelley to Virginia Woolf, it was in the novel that the ellipsis “proliferated most spectacularly”, according to Toner. She points to Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad’s use of ellipses more than 400 times in their 1901 novel The Inheritors. Ford said that the writers were aiming to capture “the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations, that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences”.

You can read the full article here. If that whets your appetite, Anne has just published an entire book about elision in English literature entitled Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission; and if her talk at Punctuation in Practice is anything to go by, it’ll be a thorough and thought-provoking read.

You can read an extract of Making a Point at The Guardian↩︎

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