~ Punctuation ~
During my studies, I knew pretty quickly I loved Renaissance literature best, that time of Shakespeare, New World discoveries, virgin queens, and queen-killing kings. So, I just kept going, from Bachelor’s to Master’s to PhD and postdoc. When preparing for my second postdoc project, I remembered how I had always been fascinated with Renaissance romance novels, those stories about erring knights, riding around magical forests and falling from one adventure to the next. I particularly loved the fanciful complicated style of the romances and their pages populated with brackets (and sometimes a bracket in a bracket!). Why did romance writers use just so many of them? And where did brackets come from in the first place? Nobody had yet worked on brackets (or Renaissance punctuation) in a serious way, and so my project was born.
Brackets allow broad kind of thinking. We’re not bound by the tyranny of a logically advancing sentence. We can roam freely wherever our mind takes us, adding after-thoughts, retuning to before-thoughts, and weave it all together in an elegant dance of main and and additional clauses. But (just as those parenthetical sentences I was reading), I myself would not remaine focussed on the bracket only… Slowly, I became obsessed with any and all kinds of punctuation. Where and why and when it was invented across thousands of years of human civilisation, what our attitude towards those dots and dashes is, and how it’s changing, based on what we want our writing to do, and the text technology at our disposal, how punctuation reaches into the nooks and crannies of all our lives, from multi-million dollar law cases to quickly dashed off text messages: punctuation is everywhere and it’s got power over us! I got lucky and was offered a chance to write a biography about one of my favourite signs, the exclamation mark. Click here to find more about the book.
Punctuation birdies from the Alex Solano series. I love these posters, because the bird-hand combinations beautifully and delicately illustrate what the individual signs are about: a question mark has us change our voice, making it rise; we’re open to our interlocutor, we’re soliciting communication. This little bird is ready and present, just as we are when we’re genuinely asking.
The exclamation mark bird sits tightly perched on the closed hand. I’m wondering whether the fingers are enclosing its leg or tail feather? Perhaps somewhat too firmly? An exclamation mark shuts discussion down. My way or the high way! The birdie looks astonished at the vehemence with which the mark exclaims, the black moon dot hovering as a prominent warning at the foot of the poster.
And then there’s the misunderstood and under-estimated semi-colon. What a lovely moment the photo is catching: the hand as it opens to release the bird spreading its wings and stretching its little bodie up and away from the palm. If you look closely, you can still see the delicate legs pushing off the finger. The semi-colon is the in-between kind of specimen of otherwise pretty clear and clarifying punctuation marks. Is it a comma? Or a colon? It’s an ambiguous pause that’s longish, but not too long. it lets us half-pause, half-continue, just as the bird semi-flying off a half-open hand embodies.
Why does it keep me hooked, and why do I think it should hook you, too?
Punctuation is key to written communication. It’s the traffic signs orchestrating the meaning of our sentences, but also managing their emotional tone. We all know the difference a comma makes (“Let’s eat, grandma!” versus “Let’s eat grandma!”). And we all know the domestic chaos that can ensue when we put a full stop at a quick text message (passive-aggression anyone?).
The stuff of writing is more than words. Words are the bones and the flesh, punctuation are the sinews making the bones move.
I also like how punctuation invites (and sometimes forces) us to “stand and stare” as the poet W.H. Davies says. We don’t rush through looking for the quick & easy way to unlock meaning; instead, we do slow down and look. Really look. We wonder, think, ask. What is this mark doing here? What is it doing there? They tell us time is a luxury in this fast world of ours. But that is not so. Time is what we take. Punctuation encourages us to take time, and unapologetically so.
When we slow down, and attend, we become conscious. We become aware. We are present not for a grand gesture but for a small hook dangling off a letter, a suggestive dot dot dot… its effect certainly momentous, but not it itself. We get to know the life-world of a tiny object. We understand something about humility.
That way, punctuation allows us to fall in love with small things.
And not only that: when we show up for the minute and microscopic, when we honour and love it, we will also show up for ourselves and each other. Punctuation is a reminder that we still care. A reminder – and a guarantor.
So, if in doubt, be like Beaudelaire, warning his editor “je tiens absolument à cette virgule”: I am absolutely attached to this comma. Let’s attach, and with passion!
For deep-dives into all things punctuation from literature, to cognition, art, and decidedly quirky trivia, check out my blog here.
New punctuation, ironically suggested by French satirist Alcanter de Brahm. When do you plan on using the “point d’amour”?