Quasiquotes: too good to post only once

Did you catch last weekend’s post on the “quasiquote”? I sincerely hope so, because Ned Brooks and Sandra Bond helped me uncover the history of a truly interesting mark of punctuation, and one that sparked a flurry of comments.
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Miscellany № 49: introducing the quasiquote

The best thing about running Shady Characters, bar none, is when a reader alerts me to a genuinely novel punctuation mark. A symbol I haven’t seen before, perhaps, or one that fills a niche I hadn’t ever considered. Ned Brooks checked both these boxes when he posted to the Shady Characters Facebook page to tell me about the so-called quasiquote. I’ll let Ned introduce this fantastic mark of punctuation:

The interrobang was discussed on the Yahoo group for typewriter collectors, and it reminded me of another punctuation mark popular at one time in mimeographed science fiction fanzines – the quasiquote. This was made of the ‐ typed under the " and meant that the phrase quoted might be the sense rather that the exact words from some source.[1]

First, a bit of background. “Fanzines”, for the uninitiated, are self-published magazines produced by the fans of a particular hobby — science fiction, punk music or video games, to pick just a few — and are often characterised by a lo-fi approach to their printing and distribution. As Ned mentions, early ’zines were “mimeographed” — that is, they were produced using an early type of copying machine called a mimeograph. A master stencil of each page was produced by typing onto a sheet of wax paper and was then copied by the machine, which forced ink through the stencil and onto a blank sheet of paper.[2]

The use of typewriters to prepare mimeographic stencils made it easy to overstrike mistakes (the traditional fanzine approach was to do this with slashes — ‘/’ — rather than ‘X’s or dashes), or even to deliberately combine characters. “The interrobang was easily made with a back-space and over-type”, as Ned told me via email, which is remarkable in itself. But this quirk of typewriter operation also allowed the construction of the fabled quasiquote, where a hyphen and quotation mark were overstruck to produce something like "this", or 'this', and which encapsulated an abbreviated or paraphrased quotation rather a verbatim report of the speaker’s words.

Ned’s explanation of the quasiquote would have been intriguing enough by itself, but he outdid himself by sending me scans of two fanzine lexicons that described and demonstrated the quasiquote in action. Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the definition of the quasiquote as given by the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer, one of the founding fathers of fandom:[3]

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

And later, from the 1966 reprint of the 1955 Neofan’s Guide by one Bob Tucker, a fan who went on to become a professional writer in his own right:[4]

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Despite its novelty outside the fanzine community, the quasiquote was no flash in the pan. Attested as early as 1944 (and likely created even earlier), it is still used in some ’zines and has even lent its name to one: Londoner Sandra Bond published a science-fiction ’zine named QuasiQuote from 1999 to 2008,[5] adopting the name of the mark “because (to me) it evoked a nicely retro feel, as well as commemorating a typographical quirk I thought deserved to be remembered.” Ironically enough, as technology has advanced the quasiquote has become more difficult to type, and Sandra told me that “the quasiquote as used in QuasiQuote, the fanzine (i.e. this: -") was only in that form because unlike a manual typewriter where overstrikes were possible, I couldn’t put both the quote and the hyphen in one space in a word processor.”[6]

Where now, then, for the quasiquote? Graphically, there’s nothing to stop the quasiquote from appearing on computer screens everywhere. Modern word processors may lack a simple way to overstrike characters but they almost universally allow text to be struck out with a horizontal line; HTML, too, the language of the World Wide Web, allows text to be struck out in a similar manner. I dont know about you, but I think that these hacked-together quasiquotes look rather fetching.

It’s far more difficult to see how quasiquotes might fare as a regular mark of punctuation. They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation (I’m looking at you, SarcMark®) the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye. Even so, the lot of the newly-invented (or, if I may say so, newly-discovered) mark of punctuation is rarely an easy one. We all know how the interrobang fared — neither snuffed out entirely nor enshrined in common use — and the quasiquote will surely face just the same uphill struggle for acceptance. I, for one, will be rooting for it.

Thanks to Ned Brooks for getting in touch and for his scans, and to Sandra Bond for answering my questions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please leave a comment below if you’ve come across the quasiquote or any analogous mark in print!
  • [1] C. W. Brooks, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

      author = {Brooks, Cuyler W},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}
  • [2] “Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph,” in The Queensland Museum Network Blog. Queensland Museum Network, 2011. <http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/> Bibtex

    @misc{QLD2014Mimeograph, booktitle = {The Queensland Museum Network Blog},
      month = jul, publisher = {Queensland Museum Network},
      title = {{Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph}},
      url = {http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2011}
  • [3] “Jack Speer,” in Fancyclopedia 3. <http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer> Bibtex

    @misc{JackSpeer2014, booktitle = {Fancyclopedia 3},
      title = {{Jack Speer}},
      url = {http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer},
      urldate = {08/06/14}
  • [4] “Tucker, Wilson,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2014. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker_wilson> Bibtex

    @misc{TuckerWilson2014, booktitle = {The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction},
      month = apr, title = {{Tucker, Wilson}},
      url = {http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker\_wilson},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2014}
  • [5] “QuasiQuote,” in ZineWiki. 2013. <http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote> Bibtex

    @misc{QQ2014ZineWiki, booktitle = {ZineWiki},
      keywords = {Awry,Banana Wings,Bill Rotsler,DNQ,Destiny,Harry Warner,Horizons,Jr.,Mark Plummer,Oblong,Ploy,QuasiQuote},
      month = may, title = {{QuasiQuote}},
      url = {http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2013}
  • [6] S. Bond, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

      author = {Bond, Sandra},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}

Miscellany № 48: a historical section

A true miscellany for your perusal this week! On with the show.
First, a punctuation story that self-destructed almost as soon as it appeared. In mid-April, Levi Stahl, a publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press, posted to his blog about “The first emoticon?”. Stahl had come across a familiar-looking pairing of ‘:)’ in a 1648 edition of a poem by Robert Herrick. The lines in question went as follows:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.

A smiley!!11! Well, no. Within Days, Ben Zimmer of Slate’s excellent “Lexicon Valley” blog published a comprehensive treatment of this and other supposed historical emoticons, demonstrating that the “smileys” found in pre-20th century works are almost always attributable to the punctuation fashion of their times. Reverse Herrick’s ‘:’ and ‘)’ and suddenly things look a lot more conventional — and, frankly, a lot more believable. Much as it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s time to put the quest for the historical smiley on the back burner for a while…?

The section mark (§) doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Is it too mundane, I wonder, too bogged down by its association with the dry corpora of legal rulings and governmental statutes? The German artist George Grosz, working in the febrile atmosphere of interwar Berlin, certainly thought so. Reader Philip Chastney emailed with a link to Grosz’s drawings for a 1928 play named The Good Soldier Švejk in which he co-opts the ‘§’ as an unsettling stand-in for the bureaucracy, rules and regulations of his city and country.

Make no mistake, these are striking, difficult images. In one, Grosz depicts a tree of section marks with corpses dangling from its branches; in another, a man is pursued and strangled by a flock of the same symbols. The question mark makes an appearance too, hovering atop a shocking, prescient heap of bones and skulls.

“[Grosz’s] drawings are not pleasant,” as Philip explained, “but then, neither was the world he saw about him.”

In slightly lighter news, readers Richard Taylor and Jason Black both pointed me in the direction of an article at The Guardian entitled Notation, notation, notation: a brief history of mathematical symbols. It’s written by Joseph Mazur, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Marlboro College, Vermont, and it delves into the evolution of mathematical symbols over the centuries. I encountered some of the sources cited by Professor Mazur while writing Shady Characters, and it’s a fascinating subject; Professor Mazur’s article is a great introduction to the history of mathematical notation, and his book, Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and its Hidden Powers, is now firmly on my Christmas list!
Thanks to Philip, Richard and Jason for their contributions, and thank you all for reading! Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line with any punctuation news that you’d like to see featured here.

Miscellany № 47½: the creator speaks!

I’m very pleased to say that Michele Buchanan, owner of getthepoint.me and creator of its new marks of punctuation, got in touch this week to discuss her project. Her three new marks — the ironic or sarcastic asterisk (*), the equivocal tilde (~), and the happy double-parenthesis (‘))’) — sparked quite a discussion last time here at Shady Characters, and it’s great to have Michele add her voice to the debate.

I asked Michele a little about herself, and she was gracious in responding to my questions. She hails from Manitoba, Canada, and has worked as a graphic designer for “the better part of three decades”; she is a devoted Mac-user, a cinema fan, and an aficionado of robots — a set of interests that practically begs for a Venn diagram, does it not? getthepoint.me is a thesis project carried out for her MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design, but more on that from Michele herself:

I was wandering down a different road originally for my [MFA] Thesis subject when I came across an old process book for a typography class I had completed the year before. I was frustrated with one of the projects, that essentially had us designing icons. I had noted my dissatisfaction (really a bit of rant) and suggested that a more worthwhile use of our time would be to address the problems of communication with type that we currently face. I even had a few prototypes of some new punctuation marks that were amalgams of existing forms. It wasn’t until I started to really dig into the problem and contemplate a solution that I realized that to make this effort anything other than wildly theoretical, implementation couldn’t rely on brand-new marks. Making use of new punctuation needed to be as simple and effortless as possible to encourage use, so let’s just use what we already have.

The most interesting thing I discovered was the result of the surveys I did. I asked about the frequency of miscommunication across a lot of intellectual and emotional expressions, and was really shocked at how high it was in ALL categories. Why would ‘happy’ be so frequently be misunderstood, or ‘thanks’ (for example). After mulling that over for a bit I came to the conclusion that the real villain of the piece is sarcasm. Particularly in the teen demographic I surveyed, there is hardly anything they can say that couldn’t be (and often is) turned into a sarcastic slam. When you can hear tone, and see a curled lip well then it is easy to see what the intention is, but not so with just written words. Perhaps the anticipation of sarcasm is something of a reflex, and makes nearly everything suspect. As I state on my web site (and thesis), having a mark that identifies sarcasm allows nearly all other statements/expressions to default to a sincere interpretation.

So there you have it. I’m intrigued by the application of survey data to the design of new marks — I can’t help but wonder how the results would look with a broader set of data points. Is conveying sarcasm a problem for the majority of internet users? Is ambivalence or confusion under-punctuated? Perhaps Michele and I should collaborate on a survey of Shady Characters’ readers. That said, we might skew the data somewhat — it’s hard to imagine a more punctuation-savvy group of people!

Michele has already responded thoughtfully to some of last week’s comments (here, here, and here) and I’m sure she’ll be keeping an eye on this post for more. Alternatively, she tweets as @get_my_point and maintains a Facebook page for the getthepoint project — I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.

So: thank you again, Michele, for getting in touch, and for putting your creations out there for us to mull over!

Miscellany № 47: great!* Another sarcasm mark.

Hot on the heels of the Sartalics’ resurrection, and barely a decade on from the Great Sarcasm Mark Bonanza of the Noughties (I’m hoping that this sobriquet catches on), another new sarcasm mark has swum into view. It has brought friends.

New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.

New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.

I received this tweet a few weeks ago. To cut a short story shorter, it pointed the way to a website titled “get the point” proposing a set of three new punctuation marks, a sarcasm mark among them. As the site explains:

Communicating with clarity is the challenge imposed with text-based forms of dialogs, and this becomes more and more important as a greater number of our personal and professional exchanges are transacted via text-based methods of delivery.

Adding a few new punctuation marks to our written communications could help correct this situation. That’s what this is all about. [emphasis in original text]

Unlike previous efforts that might have been purely hypothetical, needed special downloads and installations, wanted to you to PAY, or required you to remember special key sequences — we can use marks that are right there, right in front of us, right now. They are clearly visible on any standard North American keyboard, and a quick tap away on tablet and mobile devices.

A laudable set of goals. What’s more, the site backs this all up with cold, hard data gathered from high school students in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that shows that happiness, humour, excitement and sarcasm were regularly misinterpreted in written communication. (You can contribute your own experiences if you’d like to add to the dataset.) To combat this lack of clarity, “get the point” proposes three new marks: an asterisk (*) for sarcasm, a question-mark-plus-tilde (?~) for confusion, and a double closing parenthesis (‘))’) for a happy or joking tone.

I can see the reasoning behind each of these: an asterisk as a footnote marker has always suggested a second or hidden meaning; the tilde is a mathematical symbol denoting an approximation; and the double parenthesis is inspired by the plain old smiley face. More intriguing is the suggestion that these marks can be combined to yield new, composite meanings, as the site demonstrates:

Well, that will be great.* (droll, deadpan)
That’s just what I need!* (agitated)
You must be so excited))* (shared joke)
Could he be more helpful?* (sarcasm rolled into a rhetorical question)
I have no idea?~* (feigned confusion)

Hmm. I was on board until the third example. To me, the individual marks work better than the combined versions: the asterisk in particular I like; the tilde is reasonably defensible; and the smiley/double parenthesis is easily interpreted even if it feels a little redundant in the face of actual smileys.

I’ve tried to get in touch with the author of this new adventure in punctuation but they seem to be keeping a low profile. If you’re the person responsible for the site, please let me know via the contact form! Better yet, leave a comment below so that Shady Characters’ astute readership can weigh in on your creations. I for one would love to learn more about the project and its goals.

All this talk of sarcasm marks reminded me of a comment left by one Catherine Barber regarding the use of ‘(!)’ as a sarcasm mark in televisual subtitles. I’d read about this before, and some digging revealed that it is perhaps the closest thing to an officially-sanctioned sarcasm mark that currently exists. This document, from the UK broadcasting standards watchdog Ofcom, says that ‘(!)’ should be used for sarcasm and ‘(?)’ for irony. As the “Guidance on Standards for Subtitling” explains,

Where tone of voice is particularly critical to meaning, and facial expression and body language are inadequate to convey the tone, the use of ‘(!)’ and ‘(?)’ immediately following speech can indicate sarcasm and irony as shown below:

No, no. You’re not late (!)

The more I think about it, the more I think I must have seen these constructions in use in Wallander, The Bridge, or another of BBC4’s imported (and subtitled) dramas. There’s a certain seductive simplicity about them, and the fact that I didn’t notice their use at the time makes me wonder if they aren’t the answer to our collective yearning for sarcasm and irony marks.

What do you think? Have you seen these marks in use? Do they fit the bill?