About Keith Houston & Shady Characters

I’m Keith Houston. By day I write medical visualization software but by night I cycle, play bass and write about punctuation. You can say hi on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Goodreads, or get in touch via the Contact page.
As I wrote in the Introduction, Shady Characters is all about the stories behind different marks of punctuation. I started writing on this subject back in 2008 at the suggestion of a friend and over the course of the next two years I finished rough essays on a variety of different marks; this site is here to let me polish things up and publish those essays to a wider audience. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a way of giving something back to all the people who helped me unpick some obscure point of punctuation history or who pointed me in the right direction when it seemed I’d hit a dead end.

Please note that I’m a complete amateur in the worlds of punctuation and typography; although I’ve done my best to verify everything here through references to other works, there are almost certainly errors and omissions that a professional would not have made. I’d encourage you to take a look through the Further Reading and the references which accompany each entry to get the whole story!

New entries will be posted here as soon as they’re ready — experience would suggest that this will be every couple of weeks or so — and will be mirrored on the Shady Characters Facebook page, Twitter feed, Google+ page and RSS feed, and my Goodreads profile.

The Colophon talks a little about the technology behind this site and the Licensing page sets out copyright.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoy your visit!


  1. khushboo Salian
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    love the design of your blog :)

  2. Posted March 8, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    Fascinating and nicely written. Get an editor and a publisher and work a book deal. You know, in your spare time.

  3. Posted March 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Gorgeous type (what font is it?), splendid writing, fascinating articles.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted March 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Jim — thanks! The font will depend on what you have installed on your computer, but Shady Characters will try to use, in order, one of the following: Hoefler Text, Constantia, Palatino, Palatino Linotype, Book Antiqua, Georgia or a generic serif font. The Colophon gives a bit more detail.

  4. Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    Recommended here by either Language Hat or Language log (don’t remember which), where it was said that “the typography is lovely.”

    I have to agree. Just my two cents on the typeface issue.

  5. Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink | Reply

    Pleasure being here, Keith. Like many others awfully impressed by the neat and clean look. Great use of open spaces and the fonts stand out so well.

    Came here following Laurie Abkemeier’s tweet. Will visit frequently and follow your tweets.

  6. Posted June 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Just found this site. What a treat! Always have loved the ampersand, so great to learn the back story.

  7. Sascha F Zeller
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Dear Keith,

    I was wondering if you could perhaps help me out with the following characters seen on a commemorative stamp for Heydrich, in which the usual characters for born (*) and died (+) are rendered as follows:
    Never seen anything like this before and am wondering where they came from (my guess is some form of Runen).
    Thanks for your time.

    • Lora Jacobs
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

      jr@coastalcg.com told me this: “These are Norse runes that were adopted by the T.R. The traditional symbols which these replaced for birth and death were * and +.

      The T.R. extensively used Norse runes for emblems or symbols for some of its military divisions, and sometimes the same symbol was used for multiple divisions.

      • Keith Houston
        Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Hi Lora — thanks for the comment. It’s interesting to see Norse runes used as punctuation in roman script, but it’s unfortunate that the context is so distasteful. It does rather discourage further investigation!

  8. Posted September 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hello Keith. I’m very, very excited about finding your website. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Michael — thanks! It’s been a pleasure to write, and I’m glad you’re enjoying reading it too.

  9. Posted October 18, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink | Reply

    Ah , the pilcrow! A joy to see it’s return the the mainstream, well, sort of, but at least a recognition and some of it’s history. I was alerted to it by the great book designer Derek Birdsall and his typography for the Church of England’s more recent publications. It’s such a cheeky but tasteful little icon. I love it.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted October 18, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Denis — I recall reading John Morgan’s “Account of the making of Common Worship”, and Derek Birdsall (and his pilcrows!) make an appearance in there.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Posted October 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Ah yes, it was John Morgan who was assisting Derek Birdsall when they were designing my “Searching the Thames” book. A great team, both of them. Have you seen Derek’s “Notes on Book Design”. It’s all good stuff. As is your beautifully designed “Shady Characters” book. It gives great joy.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted October 19, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink | Reply

      I’ll have to have a look for your book! Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you’re enjoying Shady Characters.

  11. athena anders
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Keith,

    As an expert in punctuation, I was wondering if you know why we use a colon in the salutation and a comma in the complimentary closing? I live in Canada and this is the standard punctuation we use in business letters.

    Who invented business letter punctuation?

    I look forward to your reply.

    A. Anders

    • Keith Houston
      Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink | Reply

      Dear Athena,

      I’m afraid I haven’t looked into business letter punctuation at all, and so I can’t shed much light on your questions. This article suggests that we’ve been writing business letters in English since the 15th century, but unfortunately I don’t have access to the journal to read more. Sorry I can’t be of more help! Might a Google search on the subject may help get you started?

      Thanks for the comment!

4 Trackbacks

  1. March 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    […] Designer Keith Houston nützt für seinen Blog eigent­lich nur rote und schwarze Typografie, aber dafür super lesbar und […]

  2. March 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    […] Designer Keith Houston nützt für seinen Blog eigent­lich nur rote und schwarze Typografie, aber dafür super lesbar und […]

  3. March 29, 2011 at 11:09 am

    […] all of you type, grammar and punctuation nerds here is a new site… Shady Characters.  Keith Houston’s blog about the unusual stories behind some well-known — and some rather more outlandish — […]

  4. May 25, 2015 at 8:49 am

    […] Keith Houston examines the history of the (perhaps) 3,000 year old tilde. Spoiler: “[T]he tilde was and is a tittle par excellence, a mark used to modify the sound or meaning of a letter. It was so exemplary of the form, in fact, that the word ‘tilde’ itself arose from ‘tittle’ sometime during the nineteenth century.” […]

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