Miscellany Nº 64: let’s gnomonise

Marks of punctuation, or "gnomons", as James Brown has them in his 1845 book An English Syntithology. (Image courtesy of Coffee & Donatus.)
Marks of punctuation, or “gnomons”, as James Brown has them in his 1845 book An English Syntithology. (Many thanks to Coffee & Donatus for the image.)

Readers! Have you ever wanted a better name for “marks of punctuation”? No, me neither. And yet that is exactly what drove James Brown (no, not that one) to produce the page shown here in his rambling, esoteric An English Syntithology: In Three Books, Developing the Constructive Principles of the English Language of 1845.1

Brown, as I found out after following a link from the niche but always interesting Coffee & Donatus (tagline: “Early grammars and related matters of art and design”), was a nineteenth century grammarian from Philadelphia with a passion for cataloguing and codifying the rules of English language. His “Syntithology” was an attempt to retrofit a logical structure onto the evolutionary messiness of English grammar, and he gave it an appropriately lofty-sounding title: the Greek syn- stood for “with” or “together”; tith- was derived from tithemi, “to put”; and -ology came from logos, a “doctrine” or “principle”. He summarised his book as “the principles on which the elements are formed into the compound” — how letters form words, words makes sentences, and sentences paragraphs.*

When it came to punctuation, though Brown was happy to call the hyphen, comma and company by their conventional names (I suspect it helped that most such marks had comfortingly classical designations) he could not quite bring himself to leave the subject alone. Punctuation as a whole, he declared, was to be recast as the practice of “gnom-o-nology”.

Gnomonology. For realsies, as the kids might say.

In his chapter on the subject, Brown explained that the Greek word gnomon (“one that knows or examines”) is used to refer the pin or rod of a sundial, the part whose shadow falls upon the dial to tell an observer what time of day it is. For Brown, marks of punctuation were knowing gnomons too — “index marks”, as he described them, that pointed out something of interest in the surrounding words just like a shadow on a dial, and his new terminology was loaded with coincidence.2 The word “punctuation” comes from the Latin punctus, or “point”, for the dots of ink with which early readers marked up their unpunctuated books, though it is not a stretch to imagine these “points” as pointers in a more literal sense. And the manicule, or pointing hand (☞), a mark whose purpose was to highlight interest passages in a text, is also called the index, as Brown showed in his chart.

This drastic re-branding did not take hold. The only other reference I’ve been able to find to Brown’s concept of “gnomonology” is in an 1862 book entitled An analytical, illustrative, and constructive grammar of the English language, written by an English teacher named Brantley York some fifteen years after Brown’s Syntithology, and which lacks Brown’s missionary zeal.3 Today we punctuate our writing rather than gnomonise it, and, in hindsight, I’m just a little bit sad about that.

In tenuously related news, a colleague forwarded me a link to an article penned by the BBC’s anonymous Vocabularist that looks at the names of punctuation marks through the ages. It’s a diverting little read. Gary Nunn’s recent Guardian article “If punctuation marks were people”, errs on the fictional side. As he writes with regard to the interrobang, for example,

The interrobang is that inappropriate over-sharer we all know
They ask you at work if you got laid at the weekend‽ Or if you’re hungover again today‽

Thank you to all the readers who send in links — if you have a punctuation-related story you’d like to see here, drop me a line!

J. Brown, An English syntithology in three books, developing the constructive principles of the English language, by appropriate polymorph terms, used in this science only, and each having but one meaning, Philadelphia: H. Grubb, 1847.
gnomon,” OED Online, 2012.
B. York, An analytical, illustrative, and constructive grammar of the English language, Raleigh: Pomeroy, 1862.
Even if the latter practice is somewhat in decline

Miscellany Nº 63: punctuating the summer

I’ll be on holiday this coming week, enjoying the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris with my wife Leigh (as she put it when she suggested the trip: “lycra is optional, the Louvre is not”), but here are a few punctuational links to tide you over until I’m back.

  • Are you a Mancunian? The owners of an as-yet hypothetical pub called The Pilcrow are documenting their quest to build a new pub in Manchester up using local expertise and elbow grease. Follow them at their web site or on Twitter @thepilcrowpub.
  • Gunther Schmidt of lexikaliker.de sent me a link to an excellent article about Japanese punctuation. Posted at Tofugu, an educational website about Japanese language, it talks about (conceptually) familiar marks like the comma () and full stop () before moving on to more esoteric marks such as the wave dash () and the unexpectedly rehabilitated interpunct (). Koichi, the author of the piece, explains that the unusual spacing is down to the “monospaced” nature of Japanese characters, where each one occupies a roughly square area of approximately equal size, so that marks of punctuation are promoted to have the same width as letters in order to go with the typographic flow. The article is a great introduction to the subject, and I urge you to read it!
  • In the words of Mark Berman of The Washington Post: “Minnesota’s great umlaut war is over (also, Minnesota was having an umlaut war)”. Berman reports on a (quite reasonable) backlash from the inhabitants of the town of Lindström who objected to the loss of their umlaut in a recent road sign upgrade. Squint, and it’s almost a story about a diaeresis.
  • Readers with access to an academic library should take a look at Claire Bourne’s article “Dramatic Pilcrows”, published in the December 2014 issue of The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. It’s a challenging but rewarding read.

Thanks for reading! If you have a punctuation-related link of your own, why not share it here? Leave a comment on this post or drop me a line at the Contact page.

The imminent death of the paragraph

Edwin Lewis, The History of the English Paragraph (1894), page 11. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)
Edwin Lewis, The History of the English Paragraph (1894), page 11. Lewis’s PhD thesis is a pleasant enough read, though his history of the pilcrow disagrees somewhat with the accepted story described by Malcolm Parkes in Pause and Effect. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

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. 

Punctuation in Practice: a Workshop

Melanie Wiener’s poster for “Punctuation in Practice”.
Melanie Wiener’s poster for “Punctuation in Practice”. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Bonapfel.)

My mind is spinning.

Last weekend I attended “Punctuation in Practice”, a workshop on punctuation held at the leafy Dahlem campus of Berlin’s Freie Universität. I was there along with six other participants at the invitation of Dr Elizabeth Bonapfel, a postdoctoral fellow who has written extensively on American and English literature, with a particular focus on James Joyce1 and a more recent interest in the punctuation of speech in 18th century drama and literature. Other attendees included Charles Lock, professor of English at the university of Copenhagen, Dr Anne Toner of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Dr Stewart Brookes, research associate in digital palaeography at King’s College, London; and suffice it to say the other presenters were not exactly lacking in academic heft, either.

I, on the other hand, am a blogger and writer of popular non-fiction books. (Popular, that is, with reference to their genre, not necessarily their actual popularity.) I was agog.

Our remit, as Elizabeth describes on the workshop’s web page, was as follows:

This international workshop, “Punctuation in Practice,” investigates how punctuation—as a way to organize syntax and mark pauses on the page—changes throughout literary history. The workshop seeks to explore a range of punctuation practices (or lack thereof) from medieval manuscripts through printed drama and poetry to the novel and contemporary literature by bringing together experts from a range of genres and time periods.

This workshop takes as its starting point Adorno’s statement about the historicity of punctuation (“History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation”).2 With a focus on historical conventions and change, this workshop will explore how punctuation organizes the basic structures underpinning our expectations about literary style, conventions, and genres.

As trepidatious as I was going into the workshop (I was down to open proceedings with a short talk on the history of the pilcrow; as a reader of Shady Characters, of course, you already know it all), I needn’t have worried. My co-presenters suffered my presentation with good grace, and the rest of the two-day workshop passed all too quickly. I have pages of notes filled with books and papers to read, fascinating titbits of punctuation lore, and many statements ending with an elliptical question mark (“…?”) offering new avenues for investigation. Some highlights:

  • At least three of the attendees had been on first name terms with the eminent Malcolm Beckwith Parkes, the man who rewrote the history of punctuation in the west, and whose book, Pause and Effect,3 was a major source of inspiration for me in writing Shady Characters. According to Charles Lock, once Parkes’ student, Parkes lived next door to crime author Colin Dexter in Oxford, and (I paraphrase) may have been partly responsible for inspiring the character of Inspector Morse — or at least his irascibility. (In an introduction to a later book, Parkes thanked Dexter for helping to improve his writing style.4)
  • Separately, Stewart Brookes and Mark Faulkner delivered fluent performances of 12th-century Old English manuscripts as part of their respective presentations. A few lines of Beowulf aside, I’ve never read the language nor heard it spoken aloud before, and it was a treat to hear Stewart and Mark perform it so well. It was also a disconcerting experience: Old English has just enough commonality with its modern descendant that I felt that I was skating along the edge of comprehension. In an odd way, it was like watching an episode of Wallander, the Swedish television programme — certain Scots words like “bairn”, “hoose” and “noo” translate more or less directly into Swedish, and I had the same feeling of intermittent understanding as Mark and Stewart regaled us with Ælfric’s medieval prose.*
  • As an occasional reader of graphic novels, John Lennard’s trip through Tintin, Watchmen, and Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor was engaging and eye-opening. John proposed an “eight-level scale” of punctuation, leading from letters themselves (which punctuate empty space, as John put it) via the conventional notion of punctuation as discussed here at Shady Characters, and all the way up to books and other works punctuating the space around them. A vertiginous journey, and a thought-provoking idea.

This is not to ignore the other presenters, Anne Toner, Jeffrey Gutierrez and Elizabeth herself, all of whom gave excellent presentations, nor Hannah Hiassen, who choreographed and performed in a work called Punctuate to round off our first day. It was an honour to attend and a privilege to get to know everyone — thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me, and thank you all for being so approachable and so willing to entertain my half-baked ideas!

I must thank Claire M.L. Bourne for her help in unpicking some nuances surrounding the disappearance of the pilcrow, and Nicholas Birchall for the use of an image. Thank you both!

E. Bonapfel, Doubtful points : Joyce and punctuation, Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2014.
T. W. Adorno and S. W. Nicholsen, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review, vol. 48, iss. 3, pp. 300-305, 1990.
M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, University of California Press, 1993.
M. Parkes, Their hands before our eyes : a closer look at scribes : the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999, Aldershot; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.
P. Durkin, “The history of English,” Oxford Dictionaries Online
J. Lennard, “Mark, space, axis, function: towards a (new) theory of punctuation on historical principles,” Ma (r) king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, pp. 1-11, 2000.
Philip Durkin explores the evolution of English, including its roots in Old English and the Scandinavian influences on it, at Oxford Dictionaries Online.5 
John’s punctuation scale is elucidated in his article “Mark, space, axis, function: towards a (new) theory of punctuation on historical principles”.6 
You can watch Punctuate here

A reminder: how to subscribe to Shady Characters

There have been a welter of informative and thought-provoking comments here lately (including some from Choz Cunningham, inventor of the snark, or “.~”), but all this activity is sometimes a little hard to follow. As such, I thought I’d post a reminder that it’s possible to subscribe directly to posts and to comments via dedicated RSS feeds.

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