Edinburgh ♥ Books

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tuesday 16th August, when Gerry Cambridge and I will be talking with Stuart Kelly about printing, typography, shady characters and — of course! — books. As the EIBF programme puts it:


Editor of celebrated poetry journal The Dark Horse, Gerry Cambridge complements his poems with a passion for typesetting. Today he discusses The Printed Snow, an exquisitely presented essay on how to typeset poetry. Nobody knows more about pilcrows and interrobangs than Keith Houston, an Edinburgh-based punctuation expert. Here, Houston presents his paean to the most brilliant invention of modern times: The Book. Chaired by Stuart Kelly.

The event begins at 4pm in the Garden Theatre. Tickets are £12.00 or £10.00 for concessions and are available here. See you there, I hope!

Miscellany № 75: the end of the full stop. Period?

I’m on holiday this week, spending some time in sunny Wisconsin with my wife Leigh’s family,* but a minor kerfuffle in the world of punctuation has come to pass that demands comment.

The issue is this: is the full stop on the ropes? That’s the thesis being discussed by newspaper writers in both Europe and America, prompted by remarks made by David Crystal at the recent Hay Festival. As quoted by the Telegraph’s Hannah Furness, Dr Crystal said:

One of the places the full stop is really being revised in a really fundamental way is on the internet. […] You look at the internet or any instant messaging exchange – anything that is a fast dialogue taking place. People simply do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point. The full stop is now being used in those circumstances as an emotion marker.

This isn’t the first time that the apparent disappearance of the full stop has come under scrutiny. Back in 2013, Ben Crair of the New Republic noted that full stops were becoming increasingly rare in instant messages, and asked: “when did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?” In “The Period Is Pissed”, Crair theorised that as full stops disappear from our instant messages, the stops that remain assume a more assertive, final tone. Whether that’s true or not, it would certainly be in agreement with Dr Crystal’s assertion that the full stop is becoming a more emotive mark as it appears in fewer of our online messages.

What interests me is tangential to the change in meaning: why is it that the period is disappearing in the first place? I have to wonder if it’s all down to the medium, rather than the message.

My first instinct is blame Twitter. Consider the tweet: one hundred and forty characters isn’t much to play with (even if, as reported, links and photographs will soon be excluded from that total), and in such an environment all marks, whether letters or punctuation, become correspondingly more expensive. However, I’m not sure this is the whole story.

We’ve talked here many times about why the pilcrow (¶) disappeared in favour of the paragraph indent, and to me the decline of the full stop in online conversations is happening for much the same reason — in many cases the ‘.’ is rendered obsolete by changes in the visual appearance of the text in question. Both David Crystal and Ben Crair highlight instant messaging as a player in the ongoing drama of the full stop, and although most IM apps don’t labour under Twitter’s self-imposed character limits, they do share one particular feature: in almost every case, individual messages are surrounded by a border of pixels or a similar visual delineation. Why add a full stop to the end of a sentence when that sentence already luxuriates its own speech bubble?

Of course, this isn’t the full story — not all online text takes the form of instant messages or tweets, and not all IM applications format messages in such a regimented, delineated way. I’d love to hear your thoughts: is use of the full stop really on the wane? If so, why? Leave your comments below or, if you’d prefer, drop me a line via the Contact page!

Top tips for a trip to Wisconsin: against all odds, Sparta’s Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum is a great place to visit; and, inexplicably, you’ll have oodles of fun at the Bizarro World mansion that is The House on the Rock. Architecture critics should stick to Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Taliesin Estate↩︎
Full disclosure: Crair interviewed me for his article; I didn’t feel then and I don’t feel now that it’s possible to say for certain that the period is becoming more aggressive, regardless of the context in which it’s used. ↩︎

Miscellany № 74: zombies always make a hash of things

You remember the octothorpe, don’t you? This plucky little mark evolved from the Roman abbreviation lb for libra pondo, or pound weight, and into the barred medieval ‘℔’ before settling into its modern form of ‘#’. Along the way it picked up a cacophony of mostly reasonable nicknames: pound sign; number sign; hash sign; hex; grid; crunch; pig pen; square; tic-tac-toe.1,2 Sometime during the 1960s, however, it acquired another name — ‘octothorpe’ — that is unreasonable by design. The roots of that name lie in the hallowed corridors of Bell Labs, but today we’re interested in one of the false etymologies that cling to it like a bad smell:

In car­to­graphy, it is a tra­di­tional sym­bol for vil­lage: eight fields around a cent­ral square. That is the source of its name. Oc­to­thorp means eight fields.3

That’s how Robert Bring­hurst, eminent author of The Ele­ments of Ty­po­graphic Style, put it in the 2008 edition of his reference book. It is, unfortunately, an etymology without merit. The suf­fix thorp(e) is an Old Eng­lish word for vil­lage,4 still used in Brit­ish place names such as Scun­thorpe,* but octo is Greek; not a combination that readily occurs in the natural way of things.

It was this pleasing but erroneous explanation that caught the attention of poet Tom Comitta and artist George Pfau. I say “artist”, but George has a claim to being one of the world’s few professional zombie enthusiasts: he is a prolific producer of zombie-inspired art and has been interviewed about his fascination with the walking dead by FastCo.Exist,6 Motherboard7, and others. Together, George and Tom have synthesised zombies and octothorpes into a series of artworks called Eight Fields Surrounding a Village (Or a History of the Hashtag), of which you can see a part here:

Detail from "Eight Fields Surrounding a Village" by Tom Comitta and George Pfau. (Image courtesy of the artists.)
Detail from Eight Fields Surrounding a Village (Or a History of the Hashtag) by Tom Comitta and George Pfau. (Image courtesy of the artists.)

I see what you did there.

Tom explained to me via email how the pair were inspired by the description and shape of the ‘#’ as an isolated village surrounded by fields:

George and I made a sequential visual poem called “Eight Fields Surrounding a Village,” turning this visual metaphor into a visual narrative of zombies swarming a village. In much of our work, we bring together my practice of visual poetry with George’s practice of exploring and inverting society’s use of “zombie.” When we discovered the history of the octothorpe as you described it, we couldn’t help but see the almost cliché story of a rural zombie takeover. If you look closely at each panel from left to right, you’ll see a sequential narrative that goes from #peace to #zombieapocalypse.

And so you will! The image above is just one panel of four; the #zombieplague is taking hold but is not yet pathological. You can see the complete work, along with more of George and Tom’s zombie-related art, at Cold Front magazine.

Many thanks to Tom and George for getting in touch!

R. Fulford, “How Twitter saved the octothorpe,” National Post, 2010. ↩︎
I. T. Committee. and T. Consultative, “Green book.” 1973. ↩︎
R. Bringhurst, “octothorpe,” in The Elements of Typographic Style : version 3.2, Hartley and Marks, Publishers, 2008, p. 314+. ↩︎
thorp,” Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011. ↩︎
J. Sheerin, “How spam filters dictated Canadian magazine’s fate,” BBC News, 2010. ↩︎
A. Peters, “Romero Meets Monet: Oil Paintings Of The Zombie Apocalypse,” FastCo.Exist, 2013. ↩︎
B. Merchant, “Impressionist Paintings of Famous Zombie Films: The Apocalypse, Abstracted,” Motherboard, 2013. ↩︎
Tangentially, the town of Scunthorpe is the originator of the so-called Scunthorpe problem.5 ↩︎
If this isn’t your cup of tea, you might be interested in Tom and George’s iOS app BlabberLab, in which dismembered body parts — another zombie trope — are combined with letters to make, as Tom puts it, “a set of 400+ grotesque rebuses, which folks can now use to make colorful visual poems, encrypted messages and collages.” You can download the app for free from iTunes↩︎

Shady Characters at the BBC: Word of Mouth, 24th May

There’s no miscellany post this weekend, but by way of compensation I might point you towards tomorrow’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth programme, to be broadcast at 4pm here in the UK.* In it I’ll be talking with the estimable Michael Rosen about punctuation, ancient Greece, medieval manuscripts, Winston Churchill and more — it was great fun to record the episode, and I hope it’ll be fun to listen to as well.

So: remember to tune in to Radio 4 tomorrow at 4pm, and please let me know what you think in the comments section below or, if you’d prefer, drop me a line via the Contact page. Enjoy!

Update: The programme is now available to stream and download.

It should be available to stream elsewhere in the world too, shortly after the broadcast itself. ↩︎

Miscellany № 73: per Churchill et commata

It’s easy to overlook the importance of empty space as a form of punctuation. Certainly, I’m guilty of giving pride of place to visible marks such as the pilcrow (¶) and interrobang (‽). But this isn’t to ignore the groundbreaking invention of the word space in the medieval period; the disappearance of the pilcrow to create the paragraph indent; or, most recently, the use of variable-length spaces as pauses in Patrick Stewart’s 2015 PhD thesis. Also recently, I was encouraged to look again at the subject of whitespace-as-punctuation by a visit to the Science Museum here in London.

First, though, it’s helpful to recap the 1200-year evolution of empty space as punctuation. Hold onto your hats.

For much of antiquity, texts were written in the traditional style of scriptio continua, or WORDSWITHOUTSPACES, that was favoured by the Greeks and Romans. Eventually, around the eighth century, Celtic monks at the fringes of what had once been the Roman Empire started to add spaces between words to ease the copying and reading of unfamiliar Latin texts.1 Later, with the arrival of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, an exponential growth in the number of texts to be finished and bound led many printers to omit certain decorative flourishes that had once been added by hand — even as the whitespace dedicated to them continued to feature in printed works. Thus, the pilcrow and other paragraph marks, such as decorative initial caps, disappeared in favour of the now-familiar paragraph indent, as seen in this article.2

And so, by the end of the fifteenth century, the hierarchy of punctuation marks from the paragraph on down was essentially fixed. Paragraphs were separated by a newline followed by an indentation;* sentences were separated by one of a number of visual marks; clauses were separated by points, slashes, and other symbols; and words were separated by simple spaces.

But that isn’t quite all there is to the story. Before the paragraph indent, before even the word space, some writers of the early Christian era experimented with a form of punctuation that they called per cola et commata — “by colons and commas”. Originating with St Jerome in the fourth century, texts arranged per cola et commata placed each sentence and clause on a new line. Where a clause was too long to fit on a single line, it was carried over the next line and indented to the right. 4 Here’s an example, from folio 17 of British Library manuscript Harley 1775, an Italian manuscript of the Four Gospels from the last quarter of the sixth century:

BL Harley 1775, f.17
Text punctuated per cola et commata on folio 17 of British Library manuscript BL Harley 1775. (Public domain image courtesy of the British Library.)

For those trained in the art of rhetoric, a comma was a short clause and a colon a longer one; together a sequence of commata and cola made up a complete periodos, or sentence. The prevailing method of punctuation would have been to add a middle (·), low (.) or high dot (˙) after each comma, colon and periodos respectively,5 but St Jerome, and those who followed his example, used page layout instead of visible marks to punctuate their texts. Given that punctuation began as a way for readers to insert spoken pauses in a written text, St Jerome’s innovative page layout makes a great deal of sense: here is an author inserting visible pauses in his writings to guide his readers in teasing apart their meaning.

All of this brings us to the Science Museum. I was there more or less by accident, killing some time with a friend, when we found ourselves in an exhibition called Churchill’s Scientists, about British scientific advances during WWII. As we wandered through it, I noticed a reproduction of a page from one of Winston Churchill’s speeches, and it looked mightily familiar.

It turns out that Churchill (or, perhaps, a secretary; I’m sure more knowledgeable readers will correct me) had a very particular way of laying out the notes for his speeches. You can see many examples of his typewritten notes at the Churchill Archive, but here are a couple of paragraphs from the closing section of his most famous speech, usually entitled “Their Finest Hour” from its last line, as an example:

If we can stand up to him,
    all Europe may be freed,
	  and the life of the world 
	   may move forward into 
	     broad and sunlit uplands.

But if we fail,
  then the whole world, 
    including the United States,
	  including all that we have known and 
	                              cared for,
	   will sink into the abyss of a 
	     new Dark Age
		   made more sinister and 
		    perhaps more protracted by 
			 the lights of perverted 

Now isn’t that striking? The notes for “Their Finest Hour” aren’t arranged strictly per cola et commata, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment, but the family resemblance is strong nonetheless. That resemblance becomes even more pronounced when you hear Churchill deliver this part of the speech, as in this British Pathé recording. What you’ll notice is that when he pauses in his delivery, it is almost always at the end of a line. Only in the final lines of the second sentence above does he deviate noticeably from his per cola et commata-style layout, pausing after “protracted” and “lights”. Everywhere else, essentially, a new line signals a pause in his spoken performance.

Of course, if Churchill was aware of St Jerome’s fourth-century per cola et commata method (he was avowedly ambivalent toward Greek and Latin at school6), he did not follow it slavishly. His line breaks do not always fall where a comma, colon or semicolon might have been expected to appear. He has indented each line a little more than the last, rather than push them all to the left-hand margin, to make it easier to follow his notes as he read aloud from them. And, most obviously, the occasional stray comma has crept in, as if he could not quite bear to abandon conventional punctuation altogether.

Wherever Churchill found inspiration for his note-making technique, however, and whatever you think of the man himself, it’s difficult to argue with the results: his typewritten notes are weirdly lyrical in their layout and his speeches were undeniably effective. Per cola et commata or not, there’s a lot to be said for swapping commas, colons, and semicolons for the architectural precision of a new line of text.

P. Saenger, “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, iss. 13, pp. 367-414, 1982. ↩︎
A. Haslam, “Articulating meaning: paragraphs,” in Book Design, Laurence King, 2006, pp. 73-74. ↩︎
J. Pamental, “The Life of \P: The History of the Paragraph,” Print, iss. Fall, 2015. ↩︎
M. B. Parkes, “Antiquity: Aids for Inexperienced Readers and the Prehistory of Punctuation.” University of California Press, 1993, pp. 9-19. ↩︎
A. J. Kemp, “The Tekhne Grammatike of Dionysius Thrax: Translated into English,” Historiographia Linguistica, vol. 13, iss. 2/3, pp. 343-363, 1986. ↩︎
W. Churchill, “Harrow,” in A roving commission : my early life, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930, p. 17. ↩︎
Writing in Print magazine, Jason Pamental hypothesises that the paragraph indent was joined by the blank line — another example of whitespace as punctuation — because of simple laziness. It’s easier, he writes, to hit the return key twice than it is to hit return a single time and then insert a tab or em quad at the start of the next line.3 ↩︎
The text above is modified slightly from Churchill’s original notes in order to match the speech as he delivered it. You can also read the “substantially verbatim” speech as it was transcribed by Hansard, the official parliamentary record, which differs again. ↩︎