Libraries are open now, that is, you can go pick up pre-ordered books. I live a little out of town, so I’m just getting my long list ready, and when the day comes to cycle a few tens of kilometres and I pick up my darlings…I shall be so ready. Until then, I’m reading what’s at home. And very overdue, it is.
I’ve dipped in and out of Keith Houston’s first book, Shady Characters (2013), so many times, but never sat and read it cover to cover. I did that over the week-end after finishing his second book on books called The Book (the review here). Hysteron-proteron like, the horse before the cart.
Shady Characters is a whirl-wind tour through thousands of years of writing and writing technology, following (almost) one mark of punctuation per chapter, exploring where it came from, and what’s quirky about it. What we did with and to it.
It’s actually not true that the marks are marks of punctuation. At least not in a medium to strict sense. It’s not a stretch of definition to call a dash a mark of punctuation, but it certainly is to categorize a manicule as one. And what about the @ sign? Or the # ? The & ? (To be fair, the subtitle of the book is the very broadly-kept The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.)
It all depends on your understanding of punctuation, of course: some might say any sign in a text that is non-alphabetical is punctuation. Well, but what about a superscript a, acting as footnote? Thus: blablaa. According to this definition, an emoji, a manicule, a number, a decorative border – all this would be punctuation. And I can see the point, and I agree. Those things punctuate the text, disrupt linearity, import otherness. But I also don’t agree.
For me, punctuation has actually to have a rhetorical or grammatical function. An exclamation mark indicates emphasis. A full stop separates sentences, so clarifies syntactic relationships. Tone, pitch, emotion. Grammatical belonging. That’s what punctuation does. A manicule doesn’t really do either of these. It draws attention to stuff. Content.
Then again, what about the paragraph sign a.k.a. pilcrow? What about the asterisk, and (oh dear) my beloved ampersand? Which is nothing but a substitute for ‘and’, right? A word. An alphabetical word.
I think pilcrow and asterisk can be “saved” by arguing
they clarify structure. And the hashtag, if thought about as Twitter-like
qualifier of tone, could make it into the emotion-punctuation-marks.
But I’ve written about this before here, and there’s no hard and fast answer. Which is A Good Thing! The moment we people agree on something it’s dead, is my experience.
Houston grapples with some really complicated processes, such as transmission of texts, concepts and practices of reading, evolving purposes of writing, technologies of writing. From scroll to book, typewriter and word processor. And his book is definitely worth reading twice, which is what I did, digging up lots of gems of information which I overlooked first time round.
Like The Book, Shady Characters is actually a bit of a hard read, not because the topic is hard (it’s just convoluted like history and culture are), but because Houston writes in such a dry enumerative way that your focus keeps slipping. Fewer facts, more meat. Upon reading it once, just making a few notes in the margin, I felt curiously under-informed. It didn’t stick. And I think that’s because…I think his writing is just not (dare I say it)…beautiful.
It’s packed, but not woven. There’s little loose story-telling, and not a lot of digging, actually, making the book both crammed and superficial. Well, what does it mean that the pilcrow disappeared from manuscripts, leaving blank space which became the re-branded paragraph indentation? What does it mean that the sign is there but not? Like he says, it’s a ‘ghost’. What does that mean? Word processors certainly still keep it, just that we don’t see it. Unless we want to. We can make all those pilcrows visible with one click. So it’s like they’re there, but not. The almost-punctuation-mark. But it is a mark if one considers space punctuation (which we do). Categorized absence. Differently-sized absences. What does it mean for a Shakespeare text that the printer would sometimes pad a line with “invisible type”, and sometimes collapse proper spacing, making blank verse appear as prose (leaving us to wonder for what those lines were intended)? What does it mean that a dash censors profanity, and we still read ‘damned’ when we see ‘d–d’? What does it mean.
A little less information, and a little more thought.
That said, there’s plenty of the former which has triggered plenty of the latter in me, including old issues:
-punctuation as aid for speaking and/or reading
-overlaps of use and inconsistencies of understanding
-our relatively conservative nature when it comes to new punctuation (we’re happier to re-purpose familiar marks than integrate completely new ones into our writing)
-our belief that punctuation somehow ought to, or does, represent the zeitgeist of a certain period. Always the current one, of course. About all of which more soon, particularly the latter. The mark of our time just now would probably be the Edvard Munch screaming emoji.
Ah, and after some scrambling and massaging of definitions, I can say with good conscience that the ampersand is a mark of punctuation. It’s a connecting conjunction, you see, so it clarifies syntactical relationships… phew. Not exactly water-tight, but who would want the sensual & kicked out of the ranks of punctuation?
Since punctuation goes together with both technologies of writing and the practice of it, I thought I need to brush up on the history of the book. Which signs we have invented when, and why, is intimately connected to the material we write on, how the text goes from mind to hand to page, how it is being read, in what form, by whom, when, to what purpose. How text is being stored.
I’ve got a long list of books on books to get through,
but started with one for the general audience, The Book, by Keith Houston
(who also wrote a book on punctuation, also for the public). I wasn’t exactly
blown away by his punctuation book for reasons I’m still trying to figure out.
I think I’m put off by the style which is both dense, as in full of
information, and loose, as in the information he is giving is not information I
think I need. Like, I don’t need to know about the minute changes of shape of
all 30 Tironian ampersands found in this one manuscript in 1357. I’m all for
detail, but the right kind of detail. There’s an Islamic saying: ‘oh God, protect
me from useless information.
So, I was a bit wary of The Book, and it didn’t
disappoint in having me disappointed even before it started. If that makes
There are four sections: the page, the text, illustrations, and form. ‘The page’ explores the history of the material of the page, that is, papyrus, parchment, and paper. ‘The text’ is about writing kinds in the first place (such as cuneiform, hieroglyphs, Greek), and technologies of printing from Gutenberg to current machine printing. ‘Illustrations’ is about that, woodcuts and engravings, and ‘the form’ (the most interesting section, I think) traces the development of medium, as it were, from scroll to codex. Oh, and binding.
Here’s what I learnt: the earliest evidence of writing comes from the Sumerians, that’s cuneiform, more than 5000 years ago (I think). Writing came from Iraq to Egypt where someone invented hieroglyphs. The question of course is what one understands of writing. If one draws pictures, or icons, to express the name of a thing, e.g. a dog to say the word dog, is that writing? If so, what kind of writing, and how does it differ from writing where the image of a dog represents a sound, such as /d/? And how does that again differ from a system of writing that does not have any pictures at all, but glyphs which only represent sound that has been assigned to them, glyphs or letters which are symbolic. The alphabet for example.
Hieroglyphs are something in between, both expressing
the thing they are showing and a sound. Ancient Egyptians would write on
scrolls from papyrus whose recipe was fiercely guarded, so that Greece and Rome
had to import papyrus from Egypt. Around 200 A.D. parchment started to replace
papyrus across the Mediterranean. It was more resilient than papyrus and one
could write on both its sides (papyrus had fibrous ridges on the back making that
impossible). Parchment also withstood changes of temperature and humidity
better. That said, of course, it was more expensive than papyrus, and took
longer to make.
Paper from linen rags entered the European market from China via Arab colonies in Spain; the first paper-making mill was opened in Andalusia in around 1150. While everything changed (the production, the looks inside a book, who read and wrote), one thing remained stable over hundreds of years, and that was the price for paper: linen seemed to always stay in short supply, so much so that even in nineteenth-century London, there was a ban on burying the dead in linen in order to save it for paper making. Only in 1850s Germany did paper from wood pulp become a thing, and would sweep away the old way of production. Paper had been made from mulberry bark in China since the fourteenth century, so it wasn’t exactly a new invention, but that’s the moment where wood pulp replaces linen on a big scale.
So much for the story of paper. The text section focussed on Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type – which is, once more, not the first time this has been invented! Chinese ingenuity, again, found, in the fourteenth century, that it was possible to print through carving each character on a wooden block which would then be put together as sentence in something like the compositor’s stick of the Renaissance. But because of the nature of Chinese writing (part symbolic, part image entity), and because of the sheer number of Chinese characters, it took as long to carve and put together the different characters as carve the entire page as one.
It’s somewhat frustrating to work one’s way through the book. Houston has plenty of detailed information, for example the name of a book seller 1300 years ago connected to some conspiracy which then turns out to be inaccurate. Perhaps it is a case of me expecting something else, but I just wasn’t interested in (apocryphal) anecdotes and exact place names and things. Perhaps it’s because Houston is more of a historian who shows and tells, and my training is as literary critic who analyses, and asks, well, but why is it this and that way. I had a sense of constant frustration, because I wanted to know more, wanted to see what Houston was thinking about the issues he wrote about. The entire book on the book feels like an assembly of stuff thrown in together. But not like a book book. A grand vision whole asking questions and thinking. Information, not knowledge, or cognition, rather.The part that interested me most came last: form.
Why was the scroll the first technology of capturing and circulating text? At least of which we have evidence, and excluding carvings on stone or clay.
The why is unknown. There’s just, well, information,
Houston says. That scrolls were usually around 25cm in height, and around 2m
long. That both hieroglyphs, semitic, and Greek writing would be in columns,
the former two from right to left, the latter from left to right. That works on
scrolls would be cut into “tomes” (from the Greek tomos for “cut”) gathered
into a “volume” (“rolling out”), kept in pidgeon holes, for example in the
Alexandrian library which had around 40.000 volumes. Not to forget the essential
part of scroll, the syttibos, or title, written on a triangular piece attached
to the outside of the scroll. That’s were the word ‘syllabus’ comes from, which
was probably the most interesting bit I learnt from the book, and which is
perfect data for a quiz show one of these days.
But why. Why scrolls. Does it have something to do with how we think? Or write? Or something more technical, haptic, something about the quill and the ink?
Houston acknowledges that we just don’t know – but that cannot enough. We don’t know about so many things, but surely we have to keep asking, keep searching.
After all, scrolls are foldable. They might
fray, or become brittle, but it’s not impossible. So why the potentially
endless scroll form then?
If someone has secondary reading advice, please share! Extensive keyword Googling has still not thrown out proper starting points (àscrolls cognition codex thinking).
As always, though, people keep using several forms at the same time. And so, scrolls kept being used even as the book, as in the codex, started to emerge. The earliest recognizable codex dates from 400 B.C., and came as a diptych, that is, two rectangular wooden wings kept together at one side through a spine-like piece of wood or so; those tablets would be covered in bees’ wax on which the writer would scratch the text with a stylus, which made for easy erasure and re-writing (a characteristic affording writers to keep with the flow of their thoughts (according to Quintilian!). I like the ephemerality of writing through that technology, and how haptic and hands-on get-dirty it is. Beeswax scratching, more so than quill on parchment, really brings home the fact that, with writing, you do something to the world. You leave something out there. You literally leave your mark, in a very visceral way. You scratch yourself onto the world.
It was a small step from the diptych to the codex as we know it, although the directionality changes. You’d flip open the diptych like you do a laptop. Turn that 90° and you have our book. The first relic of a codex is around 2000 years old, and has a single papyrus page, a recto verso, pages 10 and 11, with a consistent margin. There you go, you can make papyrus into books, hm.
The earliest more substantial evidence are the Nag Hammadi codices, around 1700 years old. They’re from papyrus, around as big as a pocket book today, have wastepaper enforcements, a leather binding, a fastening – good things stay the same.
Now, the question is why.
Why the scroll?
Why the codex?
Why make those very significant changes in technology, in handling, in cognition? One would assume it makes a huge difference in how you think if you write on something that (potentially) goes on forever without visible pause or stopping, such as you have when you flip a page.
One would also assume that navigating text in a scroll happens differently from doing so in a book where you can easily flip to certain pages, and faster. No need to unroll the entire thing, just open it on the page that you want: easy through pagination (and later tables of content, and even later the alphabetical index). A book may propel more linear kinds of thought, but on the other hand, you can easily go back from the middle of the book to the first page, or right to the end without undoing the whole thing.
One would assume the feel of a book in the hand is different,
perhaps more weighty, than a scroll. More like a tool, perhaps, something to
help you organize thought and life. To be in control.
It seems to me there are momentous questions around the two different technologies of text. On the other hand, it’s likely that someone who grew up with handling scrolls is perfectly capable of pointing to rough places where an information lies. And there is technically no need to unroll the entire scroll in order to find any place. So perhaps the change if not that big of a deal? But why not stick with scrolls then? It seems there’s something to it, since we’re gone back to scrolls, so we can think through them.
I don’t know, but I think partly it has to do with keeping text safe and portable (a book seems to be more able to do that), and with retrieving information more easily and faster. Even that tiny bit faster. And this is where punctuation comes in.
As I have explored elsewhere, one explanation for the
emergence of punctuation marks is increasing the speed of reading, which, in
turn, increases the speed of everything else. Trade for instance. Communication
of whatever kind.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a certain kind of depth that gets lost with the increase of speed of reading, writing, exchanging. Studies show that there is a degree of desirable difficulty, a harder-to-read font, for example, leads to better retention of the text’s content. I’ve written about this here. Poring over unpunctuated text and figuring out what it means could lead to more thorough understanding. Punctuation, the codex, even writing itself can be seen as agents of surface. If you write it down, you don’t need to really know it. You can always just look it up. The book helps you find the information quickly, punctuation helps you read it quickly. Perhaps.
If anybody has secondary research on the changes of text technology, let me know! Until then, I only have this to offer:
Last week, I was thinking about punctuation that is authorial and punctution that is editorial, trying to argue that the former does not necessarily take precedent over the latter in the understanding and appreciation of a literary piece of work. This led me to re-read McKenzie’s lectures on the sociology of bibliography, how meaning is created at the interface of writer, transmitter, reader, textual material, and circumstances of production. And this, in turn, led me to dip into the work of Marshall McLuhan, which is a fun and crazy ride through a prolific oeuvre of thought that becomes particularly curious with hindsight, now that we have the internet which he predicted in the 1960s, that return to an oral culture of collective identity and tribe-like affinities and behaviours. Although, of couse, it’s the written oral, or oral written, as we translate speaking into a hyper-literate world of digital communication (emoji emergence might qualify that dominance of phonemic writing, perhaps).
I had my brain definitely massaged, trying to wrap my head around McLuhan’s concepts of form, content, and social effect. A medium is anything that extends us into the world, mind and body. So a sword is a medium, extending our arm, and text is a medium extending our thought. Language in itself, speech, oral speech, is also a medium, as it extends our thoughts into the world. Today we would probably say the sword or speech are tools offering us certain kinds of affordances throughan experience of the world as embodied cognition (or consciousness?).
In McLuhan’s aphorism, the message is not content, what is semantically or metaphorically said, but the social effect of the characteristics of the medium. The ground, as it were, or context, of culture, religion, beliefs, values, practices, attitudes. Things that change imperceptibly, and are hard to notice. For example, planes are not hard to notice, but the change of attitude that goes with travelling so quickly is. A different perception of time, and connectivity, of distance, how to bridge it physically, in reality.
In that sense, punctuation is a medium,
and the changes of cognition and attitude that it brings with it are the
message, even (or particularly) changes in cultural practices that go beyond
the individual, and affect the customs of large groups of people.
One hypothesis for the increased introduction of several signs of punctuation within just two hundred years or so, between 1400 and 1600 (in comparison to the slow diffuse evolution of spaces, dots, colon, and comma over 2000 years) is that it improves reading speed: as you don’t have to pore over letters forever trying to figure out syntactical relationships as well as tone and emotional meaning, you can get the gist quickly through the clarification afforded by punctuation. You can react faster, dash a reply off, and continue with your business. Quite literally, the hypothesis argues, since the faster pace of epistolary communication particularly concerned merchants and other kinds of business people who were able to do more in less time. Fifteenth-century proto-capitalists.
So, in the McLuhan world, punctuation
is the medium which allows for faster communication, hence better trade relationships,
hence enabling capitalism (the message).
While I think that this is a valid
and useful way of understanding punctuation, I also believe it’s too neat. Would
McLuhan subscribe to this way of applying his dictum? Perhaps not. But he did
say that reading is guessing. In a televised interview in Australia, McLuhan
explores the etymology of ‘to read’, coming from the Old English ‘raedan’, going
back to ‘raten’, to guess, which is still used in modern German for example. He
says a reader needs to guess, or pick rather, one of the manifold meanings of
any one word based on its wordish neighbours and the general drift of the text,
the word’s environment, word-wise and sense-wise. A good reader is thus someone
who is good at guessing, someone who takes decisions quickly, snatches them out
of the mist of their mind, their intuition, experience. A good reader is a good
And punctuation, speeding up this
guesswork, is a handmaid, then, to the executive. But punctuation is also more
headstrong than that, it also slows reading down, and it also complicates
meaning, multiplies polysemous possibilities and connotations. Take, for example, one of my favourite poems
by Kim Addonizio.
Obviously, most work of punctuation confusing-where-one-sense-stops-and-another-starts
is done by the mere space between words. And then there’s the enigmatic
ampersand and forward slash in the penultimate and last lines of the sonnet,
just before the volta, preparing us for the jolt of the personal pronoun and
the expression of affection and the promise (mark the lack of full stop: it’s a
promise, it’s future, it’s ever coming towards us).
I have to admit… I have no idea (yet)
what’s up with the ampersand. It’s like Addonizio tries her best to avoid
writing ‘and’, instead offering us strings of conditional clauses, all governed
by the one ‘if’ at the beginning of the octave, and again another at the
beginning of the sestet. ‘And’ would compartmentalize all those enumerated
experiences, but without any conjunction or actual mark of punctuation in
between, all experiences are somehow all one, and if you have experienced one,
you’ve also experienced the others, and so this poem is for you, and for you,
and for you, and for me. For all you who have and so on.
In literary criticism jargon, the rhetorical device governing the structure of the syntax and poem as a whole is apo koinou. A word, or expression, referring backwards and forwards at the same time, belonging to both clauses, providing the link between them, a conjunction without ‘and’, as it were. For example: ‘if you swam across a river under rain sang/using a dildo’ (lines 8-9). The apo koinou here is ‘under the rain’, because it connects swimming across a river and singing with a dildo as mic. The (lack of) punctuation of the poem thus mimics the multi-directionality of reference, of pointing here and there, to you, and me, and her, the woman in the next stall.
None of this explains the ampersand.
Perhaps it’s a case of the ampersand’s
sinuous involved shape, folding back on itself while leaning forward. The
perfect form representing the apo koinou.
Perhaps we’re also not even supposed
to replace the ampersand with a spoken ‘and’ in our mind’s voice or otherwise. Just
registering the shape and what it does is enough. It’s an elegant visual
marker, allowing the eyes and the mind to rest after the rolling avalanche of if-clauses.
The last line puzzles me, too. Should
we efface the forward slash into ‘no one can listen’, or does it provide a true
stop, refusing the workings of apo koinou while still nudging
towards it, acknowledging that this has been its way of thinking all the way through
– but now the poem refuses pointing everywhere and at everyone, because now it’s
about ‘I’ and ‘you’.
The Old English etymology of reading
also includes ‘making sense’, ‘interpreting’, and also ‘counseling’. Reading
gives counsel and comfort. Punctuation confuses and clarifies. Literature, good
literature (good punctuation!), is always more wayward than one thinks.
Punctuation is a medium with a galaxy of messages.
When I lived in Scotland while doing my PhD, I once threw a 90s music party for which people were asked to come dressed in what that era requires: garish make-up, pigtails, baggy shirts, large loud patterns. My flatmates didn’t believe it would work and anybody would follow that dress code. They did, and it did work.
I think of myself as a 90s kid, but you don’t need to have grown up then in order to know one of the biggest party hymns of the time. I’m talking about ‘I’m blue, dabedee dabedi’. And by just so much as you reading the this, you’ll have the entire song at your disposal in the mind, you’ll be singing it internally, your musical brain inevitably drawn by the catchy refrain. An earworm you won’t get rid of for a while. You’re welcome.
I recently came across the history of the song by Eiffel 65. It’s firmly and squarely a collaborative one, facilitated by the physical environment in which the three artists who produced it met: a set of single-room studios with badly isolated walls somewhere in Italy. One day, composer Maurizio Lobina played a piano tune (that refrain that gets stuck in our heads) which was overheard by Jeffrey Jey who joined him together with producer Massimo Gabutti to play around in his studio. After a day of throwing their ideas together, they had it. ‘Blue’ was born.
It doesn’t matter that it flopped at first, and the three forgot all about it, and moved on. It matters that the phone did ring a year later or so: ‘Blue’ was played by an Italian radio station, and people loved it. It went viral before we even knew what viral meant, and the three toured the world’s stages, featuring with the likes of Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears. The newness of the song may have passed, but the tune is still so current, so catchy, that even after 20 years it still holds the dancefloor.
And all because of those
If ‘Blue’ was born to
three fathers, and we don’t mind that, don’t ask who was responsible for which
part of it, why should it be any other with literary works? Why do we keep hankering
after original texts, versions the way the author intended it, trying to “purge”
the text from corrupting influences of copying scribes, editors, and type
Why do we fetishize the idea of the lone god-like author? Why does collaboration in writing, especially of the kind that makes it hard for us to tell who did what – why does that make us nervous?
Punctuation can help us
think about some of these things, and here’s how.
The example from ‘Blue’ fed back into literature opens up three avenues for exploration:
whether we think
different editing styles
our (modern) attitudes,
beliefs, and behaviours towards texts
The first issue splits into two branches, depending on whether the author cares about their punctuation.
One is easy. If an author cares, so should we. Witness Mark Twain, Laurence Stern, or Ben Jonson who supervise the printing process of their work, and who keep insisting on the printers retaining the punctuation they chose themselves. We must, therefore, take punctuation in their texts seriously, because it is one of the ways in which they communicate, and manipulate meaning. We have to familiarize ourselves with what it means to them then, and see what it can mean to us now.
The second issue is a bit
trickier, because it’s intersectional, as it were.
If the author doesn’t care about their punctuation, why should we?
Let’s consider the author left her punctuation willingly up for someone else to re-work, an editor, say, or a friend, and there are plenty of examples of really big literature names where precisely that occurred: take Lord Byron who writes to John Murray in 1813, asking if he knew someone ‘who can stop – I mean point’, because he was ‘a sad hand at your punctuation.’ Or Wordsworth who, for the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads in 1800, asked the famous chemist Humphrey Davy for help: ‘You would greatly oblige me by looking over the enclosed poems, and correcting anything you find amiss in the punctuation, a business at which I am ashamed to say I am no adept.’ I find it interesting that the poet leaves punctuation of his own work up to a scientist, and that he is ‘ashamed’ he does not know the rules well. That means that, by 1800, there was already a perceived standard of punctuation, and that, even then, there existed a stigma around correct application of the same.
One might also argue that
the fact that Wordsworth and Byron were happy to leave the punctuation of their
poetry up to someone else suggests that it doesn’t much play into what and how their
poetry means. We can just focus on the content, focus on the rhyme, syllable
There can, however, be made a case for caring about an author’s original punctuation, regardless of how sloppy or careless they were concerning the dots and the dashes. Take John Clare, the nature and natural poet, whose ampersands consistently disappeared from the edited printed texts. Here’s one of his sonnets written between 1832 and 37 with original punctuation.
The shepherds almost wonder where they dwell & the old dog for his night journey stares The path leads somewhere but they cannot tell & neighbour meets with neighbour unawares The maiden passes close beside her cow & wonders on & think her far away The ploughman goes unseen behind his plough & seems to loose his horses half the day The lazy mist creeps on in journey slow The maidens shout & wonder where they go So dull & dark are the november days The lazy mist high up the evening curled & now the morn quite hides in smokey haze The place we occupy seems all the world
Note the ampersand sign and the lack of full stop at the end. Subsequent editions replaced & with ‘and’:
The shepherds almost wonder where they dwell And the old dog for his night journey stares The path leads somewhere but they cannot tell And neighbour meets with neighbour unawares The maiden passes close beside her cow And wonders on & think her far away The ploughman goes unseen behind his plough And seems to loose his horses half the day The lazy mist creeps on in journey slow The maidens shout & wonder where they go So dull & dark are the november days The lazy mist high up the evening curled And now the morn quite hides in smokey haze The place we occupy seems all the world.
There’s a fantastic
chapter by Simon Kövesi on Clare’s ampersands and the way the curvy shape of
the sign which doesn’t even require a lifting of the pen, but can just be drawn
in one fluid stroke, its tail potentially morphing into the next letter
following it, how the shape in itself spells connection, and a connection that’s
democratic and horizontal. He says it much better than me, so here’s a quotation:
‘Clare’s predominant use of the ampersand when representing the natural is in terms of its coordinated, levelled, planar, anti-hierarchical shape. It also attests to a world which is fluid, de-centred, in flux and always in the process of becoming.’ (Simon Kövesi, ‘John Clare &…&..&…’ in Ecology and the Literature of the British Left edited by John Rignall and H. Gustav Klaus, Farnham, 2012).
There’s no difference between the milk maid and the cow, the shepherd and his dog, ploughman and oxen, neighbour and neighbour. The November fog effaces boundaries between human and animal, and indeed any creature and another, even our sense of time. Morning could as well be evening, this place every other place, ‘the place we occupy seems all the world’, dwelling without border, and without full stop as the poem’s lack of contours leaks into the white space of the page below and around it, and thence into the reality of the reader. And all because of the ampersand for which we supposedly should not care because Clare did not. Or so they say.
Another rich example is Jane Austen whose punctuation was heavily changed by her editor William Gifford who introduced all those semi-colons which we know and love her for, believing her to be such a subtle graceful stylist. A stylist she certainly was, but perhaps less subtle and more lively. Katheryn Sutherland has led the facsimile digitization of her manuscripts in which we see a much more casual relaxed writer using punctuation in a rhetorical, rather than grammatical, way, feeling herself into the effect of any one sign at any one moment. Sutherland describes her as a ‘conversational’ writer who thrives on writing dialogue, underlining for emphasis, thinking from dash to dash, just as we do when we talk with each other. Austen, she says, punctuates like we would punctuate our emails or text messages today. For use, not correctness.
So, even though an author didn’t care, and the first readership encountered their work through an edited version with changed the punctuation (and the author was alive and involved enough to have had the right at least to object), it’s still important to know about the punctuation changes, and to have access to the original in facsimile form. It tells us about the writing process, and it tells us more about the way an author thought as becomes clear in the case of Austen and Clare.
And then there was Emily Dickinson.
Despite editing trends in the latter part of the twentieth century that seek to un-edit earlier works, for instance focussing on original spelling, lay-out, or type, punctuation has yet to be included in the accidentals that deserve preservation.
Perhaps, only facsimiles will offer an adequate conservation of original punctuation, although handwriting and idiosyncratic shaping and placing of marks may hamper readerly engagement at first. The history of Emily Dickinson’s work makes a case in point for the need to have accessible facsimiles: early posthumous publications of her poems from 1890 onwards show intrusive editorial decisions such as the addition of titles, changes of words to force rhymes, changes in pronouns, and systematic erasure of Dickinson’s now trademark dashes. Only in 1955 did an edition by Thomas Johnson come out that worked from her original manuscripts, but the editor still had to make a choice as to the length and placing of her dashes for his typewritten transcription that merely allowed standardized marks. The 1981 facsimile edition by R.W. Franklin, then, reproduces the original with all its quirks and complexities attendant to handwriting. Editing punctuation, more often than not, means taming what does not fit preconceived notions of the norm and (particularly for women writers) propriety.
And anyway, she didn’t want her work to be published
at all, so it seems doubly unfair to publish and then to edit.
The bibliographical history of Dickinson clearly comes down on the side of facsimiles, I think; that of Austen is a little more ambiguous, and one certainly wants access to both, the first editions by which she came to be known, as well as her original writing.
What’s also intriguing in Austen’s work is that this collaboration between writer and editor undercuts assumptions of The One and Only Text, the authorial ur-text uncorrupted by biased uninformed editors and printers, indeed it undercuts the very concept of author itself.
I wouldn’t call myself a disciple of Barthes. I don’t think the author is dead. But I do think a work is more than mere text, that is, words, and I do think the sociology of bibliography via Jerome McGann gets it right: a literary work, its significance, meaning, whole fuzzy being, is made up by and possesses multiple forces including the author(s), editor, publisher, printer, type-setter, designer, translator, book seller, reader, and so on.
Editing traditions have come a long way regarding this. Perhaps too long? The New Oxford Shakespeare edited by Gary Taylor et al. from 2018 went full out in terms of authorship ascription/attribution. We read that Arden of Faversham is by Shakespeare and Anon., Marlowe (and Anon.) had a hand in the Henry VI plays, Heywood, Peele, Fletcher, Wilkins, Middleton — a dizzying array of collaboration, as well there might have been in the early modern dramatists scene.
The most radically inclusive of editors, however, still doesn’t think punctuation deserves to be counted as substantial, and so it falls through the cracks of bibliography yet again.
What else do we do? Where do we go from here?
Rather than to ask whether
any mark is right or wrong, we should be asking: does the punctuation here
matter for the text’s meaning? And does it matter who put it there if it says
Punctuation helps think
through some of those really big concepts and approaches of literary criticism
(and editing, and history, and). It helps us develop a sensitivity for the
small, the detail, the lack of full stop, but it also puts our seriousness into
perspective: Byron was a sad hand at it, so let’s not hang ourselves over a comma.
Punctuation helps us tolerate ambiguity, negotiate those shades of meaning, and in doing so, it tells us more about ourselves, the readers, than about any authorial intention, adept or otherwise.
I’ve been working on an encyclopaedia entry on
punctuation in literature in the past couple of days, and it’s been a lot of
fun, thinking about – well, so many things:
With punctuation, you need to unpick its relationship between rhetoric and grammar, that it has a perpetual foot in both camps, no matter what the punctuation system is. That makes a lot of sense, since punctuation is a phenomenon of language – written language, it’s true, but language nonetheless, and we experience that in speech and writing. Is punctuation only that when you can see it? Or does it guide oral performance? What about the silent oral, when we read silently with a voice in our head?
With punctuation, you need to unpick standardization, convention, and custom. The differences are subtle, but they are.
With punctuation, you need to think about genre expectations, the imagined readership or audience, how they will encounter the text, what it’s supposed to do. What they think it ought to do.
You need to think about the technology of writing (is it a digital document or an actual book? Printed or manuscript?). This goes hand in hand with the most vexing of issues surrounding editing: who put that punctuation there? The author, secretary, copyist, editor, typesetter, proof-reader? What is their level of education, what’s the house style like? Did the author care, or not? Does it matter? Should we care who put punctuation there, or can be still say something about it, even though it might not be “original” (whatever that means).
As a parenthesis: I’ve always been a proponent of the caring about punctuation regardless who put it “there”; even if it was a typesetter that put a bracket into a sentence by Philip Sidney rather than Sidney himself, that typesetter from the 1590s was definitely closer to the mindset of the author than anyone today reading or editing; he may have made an educated guess, or made the text consistent with conventions of the time. Why should that then not be note-worthy? Whether we understand such textual minutiae like punctuation among those so-called accidentals of text which we can brush under the carpet in our close-reading as vulnerable to unauthorial loss or addition (hence not intended hence not important), or whether we embrace that texts issue into the world as an amalgamation of intention, motivation, care, and carelessness, touched by many hands and minds, whether we think text is social or not – that is a question of politics.
It’s tricky to hold together so many threads, although it’s also nice to realize just how enmeshed punctuation is in all the stuff of writing, and in all the stuff of living, too. But before I came to ponder the things punctuation engages with in the first place, I thought I’d have to give some suggestions for future encyclopaedia readers on what punctuation actually is.
It’s both totally clear what punctuation is. And not at all.
What do the reference works say?
Well, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is quite hands-off inconclusive: punctuation is a ‘system of nonalphabetical signs that express meaning through implied pause, pitch shifts, and other intonational features’ (4th edition, 2012, p.1131). I was at first a bit put off, because it sounds quite vague, but it’s actually really smart. They hedge their bets. Punctuation, according to this definition, is what you think it is.
If you think an asterisk means you pause and look at the bottom of the page for a comment, then that’s punctuation. If you think a hashtag does not add an intonational feature through the now-common meta-commentary (#weird), then it’s not. It’s not punctuation. It’s something else (what?). I think Princeton’s is a smart definition of punctuation, precisely because it’s so open, so based on effect, the end-result, but it’s not really useful. It’s like saying a dog is an animal that some people are afraid of, rather than a dog looks like xyz and was domesticated from wolves in order to protect property, which is why they bark and make some people afraid. Not sure if that analogy is working. But I, for one, think we can allow ourselves to be a little more definite in our definitions.
The OED thinks punctuation is the ‘practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks (2.a ‘punctuation’).
That’s a bit more focussed than the Princeton definition. Now we have ‘small marks’, which I think is better than nothing, but still vague (numbers? Letters? Pictures?). In any case, typography such as italics or bold isn’t included. What does interpretation here refer to, though? And shouldn’t they make clearer just what kind of divisions we’re talking about? That is, grammar and rhetoric. There’s nothing here about the effect of punctuation, its emotional value, performance aspects.
Princeton 1: Oxford 1.
‘Punctuation, the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts.’ (Encylopedia Britannica)
Lots to like here! We’ve got marks and typography covered, we’ve got the oral/written aspect, we’ve got rhetoric and grammar (I think), and we’ve got ‘convention’ for the first time. Punctuation, as in the OED, is a helpmate, the catalyst for understanding. That’s absent from the Princeton, which I appreciate, although we might want to think about punctuation as clarifier before we look at its potential to create ambiguity.
Just how essential is punctuation to writing? How does it (un)confuse?
I think it’s exciting to consider punctuation in the broadest way possible: I remember an undergrad supervision with the god of all marks, John Lennard, who asked us to retrieve all punctuation from a poem by John Clare he had handed out. Of course, we only took out your run-of-the-mill marks like commas and full stops, bungling fools that we were. He returned the paper to us. ‘Do it again.’ We came back taking out the line spaces between stanzas. ‘Again.’ And so on.
He told us, if pushed to the extreme, we should have returned…nothing. Apart from all the usual marks and spaces, one could say any kind of text punctuates a page. And a page (or book) punctuates space, so…nothing.
I think that’s a valid thought experiment. That’s exactly what university is supposed to do. Challenge us, make us stop and think. Attend.
I also think zooming in on a certain set of marks which negotiate syntactic relationships between grammatical units, and give information for pausing and tone in silent and loud reading is also valid.
That’s where I perched my own definition of punctuation, followed by hundreds
of words of unravelling. Never too much of a good thing!
I guess, David Crystal’s approach of pragmatic enthusiasm and curiosity is truest to the subject: punctuation cannot be understood in isolation of other aspects of language such as spelling, capitalization, lay-out, and typography. Performance, I’d add. What reader and writer want, need, expect. A lot of fun, and so many things.
I recently introduced myself to an online editor as “a
researcher of English literature in the UK, working on punctuation. Originally,
this was a project on brackets in Renaissance writing, but I’ve been sucked
into so many rabbit hole vortices of curious punctuation that I guess I should
think of myself as a generalist now’.
And it’s true. I’ve become obsessed with punctuation
full stop (not sorry for punning). Any kind, from punctuation art to punctuation
marks in chess, law, early emailing experiments, and raising street awareness
(all blog entries that will be written!). I’ve been wondering about punctuation
in other languages for a while, trying to gather information for a blog entry,
but it’s tricky to grapple with something as slippery as language when you don’t
speak that particular one. For example, there’s no dash in Japanese punctuation
(although it contains plenty of other “European-style” marks) – does that mean Japanese
writers do not need it? If so, why? Because people don’t tend to interrupt each
other? Is there no dash because of a cultural premium placed on politeness and
patience? I asked around on Twitter, and received a, shall we say, curt reply
from a British researcher of Japanese. “No.” I’ve become weary of putting my stereotype
The pitfalls are strewn far and wide. So, I’ve been on
the reticent side when it comes to non-European-languages-punctuation, but
perhaps I shouldn’t be. Blogs are for testing out ideas after all. I’ve been
quite keen on learning more about punctuation in semitic languages like Hebrew
and Arabic, both compounded owing to their close relationship to holy books in
those languages, a circumstance which should, however, not obscure the intrinsic
oral nature of Judaism and Islam in their experience of worship and transmission.
Holy punctuation (signs marking how to perform) is for another day. For
now: secular Arabic.
Koranic “punctuation”, to put it briefly, indicates pauses both for breath and meaning. Secular Arabic didn’t use to have any signs at all, except for spaces between the words. In order to be able to understand, one had to read; and in order to read, one had to have extensive grammatical training. Arabic (I am told and know because I tried) is a difficult language, so add to this natural obstacle its status of language in which divine revelation occurred (and which hence shouldn’t be, indeed needn’t be, changed), and you have the perfect recipe for paralysis.
Until you’re shocked into reforming through external circumstances in form of a global virus, or colonialism: French colonialising of the Maghreb brought not only political oppression, but also linguistic dominance, so much so that Arab writers and thinkers would publish and exchange with each other in French. People saw this as another kind of invasion, magnified by the slow ponderous nature of Arabic. Speaking of deceleration! I feel like that slow poring over sentences is part of desirable difficulty which encourages learning and retention (about which I have written here), but it’s obvious that Arabic would be at a disadvantage if readers need to take time and have grammatical training as opposed to French which, owing to the segmentation of sense, and clarification of meaning and feeling provided by punctuation, any reader can make sense of quickly enough.
In order to forestall the continuing spread of French as linguistic medium, Arab thinkers focussed on how to make Arabic easier – which is funny, in a way, as we’re all super concerned nowadays about how (we think) our languages are becoming too easy, what with automatic word recognition programmes, orthography correction, and textese. The first to propose new punctuation-related developments for Arabic was the Lebanese writer Zaynab Fawwaz who, in an 1893 article in the Egyptian magazine al-Fata, advocates for taking over five signs from French punctuation: question and exclamation mark, colon, ellipsis, and (yesss!) brackets. These, she says, unlock the ‘hidden meaning’ of texts which is ‘incommunicable by words’ (translations & general information, see below). Fawwaz’ ideas were picked up by another Egyptian journal, al-Nil, whose editor writes a whole book with punctuation suggestions, that is, original signs for original nuances of expression. If Arabic was to take over such a French-inspired practice that would have such profound effects on communication in Arabic at all, then at least it should be on Arabic’s own terms.
Marks of tonality include pausing, chanting, volume, speed, trembling of the voice, breaking off, and carrying emotion – all recognizable to ancient Romans. What I found most striking, though, was the choice of silent reading marks, at times incredibly precise and particular as to what needed to be marked: there are signs to flag up the structure of a text, ranging from the overall connection to sentence links (marks signalling the beginning and ending of content or a phrase, a change of topic, or linked topics, strengthening an idea, or meditating over it – even a sign for a digression! Brackets, anyone?). There are signs for a writer’s sort of meta-comment, that is, approbation, disapproval, or denial. Like hashtags. There are signs for quarrelling with the text, or another writer’s idea that is being engaged with which are signs indicating a mistake, an exaggeration, a lack of reliability, calls for verification. There are signs which directly communicate with the imagined reader, as if there was an actual conversation happening: the ‘sign for control to impose the writer’s thought’ and the ‘sign to encourage the reader’s own thought’. And then there are signs which I love but have no idea what they are supposed to mean, such as the sign for vulnerability.
As much as I like the idea of finding punctuation marks that are germane to the language they are entering, 84 signs seems to be a tad on the exaggerated end. Either Arabic really does need so many specific ways of engagement, or al-Tuwayrani’s was a typical case of enthusiastic “bring it on!”. It was eventually French punctuation marks and their values which prevailed, helped on by narrative books like ad-Dunya fi baris by Ahmad Zaki from 1914 who uses comma, colon, and Co. as we know it throughout his novel, but adds an introduction clarifying what the signs mean. He also advocated for punctuating old manuscripts in order to preserve knowledge, which rings a bell with any medieval punctuator of classical texts. Punctuation, as much as it means introducing and registering change of whatever sort, also offers the possibility to conserve, and it does both of those seemingly contradictory things without really producing much clash and controversy.
So, writers introduced punctuation marks into Arabic around the turn of the 19th-20th century in order to subvert what they saw as the domineering influence of French. The motivation was both political and social, since easier reading also means widening the circle of textual participation to non-scholars. Partly, the concern with increasing reading speed and comfort, which was hoped to come with a concomitant increase in communication, reminds me of the connection between punctuation marks and “civilization” about which I have written here. This gives me a weird feeling, to be honest; as if punctuation somehow took part in the shady business of economic exploitation or political machineering. I do believe, though, that the efforts of Fawwaz, al-Tuwayrani, and Zaki have nobler intentions. Democratisation. Preservation and accessibility. Resisting the powers that were (and probably to a certain degree still are, see Latinized Arabic or Franco-Arabic which, more often than not, gets under people’s skin).
Two little bits of information I find quite
interesting, but do not know where to weave into the above: since Arabic is
written from right to left, rather than left to right, punctuation marks which
are not symmetrical also swap their direction, like so: «؟»
Curiously, in modern Hebrew (which is also written from right to left, and of which I also know by experience that it’s hard…), the question mark retains its left-to-right directionality. My first impulse was to think, unkindly so, that the creators of Ivrit did so in order to distinguish themselves from Arabic which saw the introduction of punctuation marks at the same time, of course, as the Zionist movement, at the end of the twentieth century. A Jewish friend then pointed out that it this is probably just the case because European Jews who mostly spoke German were involved in putting together modern Hebrew, so went with what they were used to.
And the second bit is
that Dana Awad, the author of the article from which most of my information
originates, believes that the three literary people who were most involved in introducing
punctuation into Arabic also did so in order to capture emotion ‘that are
hardly expressed by words’, she writes, ‘or to avoid lengthening in expressing
them’. I’ve been working on this project for exactly a year now (officially at
least), and this is what I encountered time and again: emotion. Punctuation
means pouring feeling into words.
It wouldn’t be true fi
the opposite wouldn’t also be true: I asked an Egyptian friend about her
punctuation habits in her informal texting in Arabic. She said she was just
using the usual marks that she also employs in English. When I asked how she
was SHOUTING in Arabic, because it doesn’t have such a thing as caps, not
properly anyway, and if it’s not through caps or !!!!!!!, how does she express
Words, she says.
For further information, see the excellent article by Dana
Awad, ‘The Evolution of Arabic Writing Due to European Influence: The case of
punctuation’ in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 15 (2015): 117-136.
Freely available online.
It’s funny how we can get hung up on (seemingly?) small
things: I often hear language isn’t logical, and one shouldn’t stand on points,
in the sense of punctuation points. And yet, all those school kids getting
points, in the sense of marks, off because they forgot one. Point of
punctuation, that is. And I do, and I don’t agree with both points (of view);
without rules of sorts, it would probably be hard to communicate in writing,
but there is a fetishization around orthography and grammar that’s definitely not
A Good Thing. When people (a.k.a. Lynn Truss) play grammar police, and get
their knickers in a twist over cu l8er. Which is so 2000 anyway. “Proper”
writing is not going to go away because we use abbreviations in texting. On the
other hand, perhaps it would go away if we stopped teaching it at the
same time. As always, we need to play good cop bad cop in order to wriggle
through somewhere in the middle. I, for one, punctuate rhetorically. And I, one
among millions of others, am an Oxford-comma-rer.
This tiny little hook of an inky smudge keeps style manuals baffled and the world in war over whether to add a comma after the coordinating conjunction before the last item in lists of at least three. That old-story book acknowledgement about thanking your parents, Ayn Rand and God. I wonder why she was chosen of all women. But there you go, through the powers of apposition, the lack of comma creates ambiguity, so it would make hereditary lines clearer if you thanked your parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Some things I didn’t know about that comma: it’s actually more in use in American than in British English – except for Oxford University Press of course which gave it its name. But only since 1978 when Peter Sutcliffe wrote a biography of the press, attributing the inauguration (though not the name) of the comma to Howard Collins who first mentions it in his guide for authors and printers in 1912. To be fair, maybe someone else invented it (Horace Hart who wrote a style guide for the press in 1905, recommending it. I’m confused, but anyway, its connection to Oxford is not old, though the comma is!).
I like it. I use it. I follow it on Twitter.
I like it, because it clearly accords each item its own space between the before and after, the previous and the last comma. And doesn’t it also look tidier? Well, not everyone thinks so. Apparently, in some journalistic circles, the Oxford comma is frowned upon, because it (supposedly) creates visual clutter. It’s probably just the single character space that it takes up and that, when all these characters taken together, would make another word or so.
What if this very circumstance sparked a revolution? And
not just any, the Russian Revolution that would eventually lead to – well, all
sorts of thing.
Throughout the nineteenth-century, there were strikes by workers and serfs here and there in feudal Russia. Then, just after the turn of the century, the effect of those accumulated strikes galvanized in the year of 1905 which saw work boycotts from January through to autumn. In October, the typesetters of Ivan Sytin’s printing house in Moscow demanded to be paid not only for words, but for punctuation too. For commas. Which makes a lot of sense: what do they care about words? It’s not like they’re ancient Greeks, writing without any marks or spaces at all. The typesetters’ strike spread throughout all professional fields from bakers to bankers, and throughout the country, most importantly paralysing the relatively new but already key lifeline of the railway. Shortly after, Tsar Nicholas II issues a manifesto which would become Russia’s first constitution, paving the way for the demise of the monarchy. The strike was so effective that Trotsky is known to have said that ‘a strike which started over punctuation marks ended felling absolutism’.
And if that wasn’t enough to convince anyone of the importance of points, there’s more to come: a pioneer of human rights activism, Irish consul to the British Empire Roger Casement was hanged by a comma: while working for the Foreign Office, Casement continually observed and made public the atrocities of colonialism, first in Belgium, then in South America. His 1904 Casement Report went viral (as we say today), and effectively forced the hand of King Leopold to give up the Congo. He also uncovered the enslavement of Putumayo Indians in Peru, working on British rubber plantations, but, funnily, nothing came of that… Casement returned to Ireland and became involved in the struggle for independence. In the first world war, while the United Kingdom was at war with Germany, he went on the continent to agree on weapons deliveries between Germany and Irish independence fighters, and discuss how to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany for the cause, but before any significant deal happened, he was apprehended by the British intelligence, imprisoned, and hanged for treason (note my Oxford comma!). The accusation was based on the 1351 Treason Act. The defence tried to get him free based on punctuation. The act reads thus:
Treason means ‘if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his
realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid
and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere, and thereof be properly attainted of
open deed by the people of their condition’.
It took me a few readings to understand, but it basically means that if you incite against the king or rub shoulders with the king’s enemies, or help them, you’re ‘attainted’, you’re a traitor, too. Now, the crux is where you do that, and here punctuation comes in actually to create ambiguity rather than alleviate it (which it mostly is desired to do, though more often than not doesn’t). Casement’s defence argued that the clause or elsewhere only pertains to aid and comfort, not to be adherent to the King’s enemies, because it’s separated with a comma. Hence, Casement did adhere to the King’s enemies but not in the realm, but elsewhere (in Germany). Hence, he’s not attainted. Re-read that a couple of times, it’s a messy business.
I kind of feel that the defence’s arguing was more the case if it had been the opposite, if there had been *no* comma. As it is, the comma before or makes it refer back to all clauses, but not strongly so. – The wording in and of itself is ambiguous.
Perhaps, Casement would have been able to have at least the death sentence turned into long-term imprisonment, but the general mood celebrating him as a hero based on his reports changed when the so-called Black Diaries were brought forth which recorded homosexual activities (in, at times, great detail and explicitness), and this when homosexuality was against the law (witness the Oscar Wilde case). Up to this day it’s unclear if these diaries were indeed Casement’s or if they had been forged to taint his name. In any case, he did lose, and he was hanged. His comment:
“God deliver from such antiquaries as these,
to hang a man’s life upon a comma and throttle him with a semi-colon.”
If in doubt, though, choose the latter. Semicolons come with their own brand of love and hate, but they do really close the case concerning what makes an entity with what else. Consider the Oakhurst Dairy Missing Comma Case: In 2014, 75 truck drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for outstanding pay of 10 million dollars, hinging on the lack of serial comma regarding overtime which, according to Maine legislature, is not remunerated for:
canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing
for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish products; and
So far, so much unpaid work, squeezing people out in order to make them speed up. There is an interpretative gap, though, in the punctuation and grammar of packing for shipment or distribution: without comma before or, it reads as if packing governs both shipment and distribution, in the sense of packing for distribution. Not distribution itself. Hence, the truck drivers (whose task is to distribute, not necessarily to pack for distribution) should be paid for their overtime happening when they are distributing by driving around in their lorries. The suit was at first dismissed, based on the reasoning that, if one were to understand packing for shipment or distribution as one entity, the list becomes asyndetic, which is unusual for listing (of the legal kind, presumably thinks the poet).
But (praise be to the grammar gods!) the judge of the next instance knew a thing or two about the subtle delights of language, and ruled in the drivers’ favour: since the comma is missing *and* distribution is a noun and hence more on a level with shipment rather than the list of nominalized verbs before (canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing), the Dairy does owe their employees. The case settled for 5 million dollars in 2017, and the law was changed compartmentalizing each activity by semicolons and swapping the confusing noun for a nominalized verb. There’s safety in semicolons!
And what does all of this have to do with Mandela and dildos?!? Well. One perfect The Times TV listing summarizes a documentary in which Peter Ustinov ‘retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.’
I’m just going to leave it there (adding that I couldn’t verify the story).
Punctuation and our worry over it strikes again, even though some people *pretend* they don’t give a fuck.
Thankfully, front singer of Vampire Weekend Ezra Rose explains: “I think the song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”
Back in early autumn last year, I came across the Brilliant Club, a charity which sends researchers into schools, teaching their work to 14-year olds. The groups are small, and half of the participants come from less advantaged backgrounds. The kids visit your institution at the beginning and at the end of the seven-weeks course, write an essay (with proper marks!), and have a graduation. It’s hoped this experience encourages not only university applications particularly from those pupils who may not naturally think of that future, but also applications to highly selective universities like Cambridge and Oxford.
I thought that’s a great way to give back (without UK funding, I’d never have been able to do my Master’s or PhD). What goes around, comes around. It’s also an opportunity to spread the word about punctuation, I thought, and develop my own course. Brilliant Club offers teacher training which I am really keen on, too – and lo and behold, my students loved the engaging ideas I got from that week-end.
Developing the course beforehand was intense…I’ve taught school kids before, but it’s always hard to pitch the level. You basically design all in advance, a booklet, with images, tasks, texts, whatever you want to put in. If something ends up not working as you thought it would, there’s only so much alternative stuff to do about it. So a lot of thought goes into the planning, and a lot of work into mounting the natural obstacle of finding authorial editions (the ever-painful drudgery of a punctuation-detective). After the typical deadline flurry, though, I ended up being really proud of my handbook. You Have a Point: Punctuation in Literature.
Teaching happened between January and March. It’s an introductory session, followed by three full-on sessions, a recap, a one-to-one essay draft session, and a one-to-one essay feedback session (this year happening online of course).
I let the kids find out what punctuation is or could be in the first session, and then treated two marks per session with some pretty tough nuts as far as literature was concerned (Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and of course ee cummings). I tried to thread in hands-on essay-writing skills like writing a thesis statement, engaging with secondary criticism, and referencing. Their final assignment was an essay on an extract of On the Road.
I’ve just finished marking the essays; there was some really impressive work there. Apart from one surprise (semicolon appreciation all around!) and one non-surprise (confusion between dash and hyphen – also all around), two main things crystallized which made me very happy indeed:
awareness of the historical development of punctuation, all with addition of
spaces, dots, and parentheses according to need and technological innovation.
And an acute sense that the pupils displayed of how punctuation creates pace
and captures or transmits emotion. My work is done here.
Oh, and of course, the beautiful typo in one essay: the scandalization of punctuation. I want to write thar eighteenth-century epistolary novel.
As we continue social distancing from others and working at home in our pyjamas (welcome to the life of an academic), I’m continuing my punctuation book review with a handy little quarto by Norwegian media researcher Bard Bord Michalsen. Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History(2019) intrigued me for its provocative title. Apart from the inevitable whistle-stop tour through the history of punctuation, I hoped the book would explore both what it thinks civilization is, and how that is changed or not through such seemingly innocuous minuscule semantically meaningless marks like dots and dashes. I say the book, but it’s of course the author who fails to live up to expectations.
Of course, like all punctuation books for the general public (or indeed all books on the topic for whatever readership?), the author feels the need to both apologize for his quirky subject matter and convince that, yes, these random scatterings of ‘flyshit’ are actually worth giving attention to (not my genius words on semicolons, alas, but Edward Abbey). I expected that. I expected a certain kind of bouncy breezy tone. But I didn’t expect the astonishingly superficial approach to “civilization”, that is, the lack of any approach at all.
Life is short and art is long, so a thorough unpacking
of that most loaded of terms would be misplaced in such a book as this; yet one
wishes at least some kind of acknowledgement, some nod, towards the complexity
of the concept. Because of course, civilization (whatever that is) is desirable
according to the book, and of course, that desirable civilization (whatever that
is) is Western.
An ‘advanced punctuation system has been nothing less than one of the driving forces in the development of our entire western civilization.’ P.6
The Greeks didn’t have much punctuation to speak of,
and were pretty advanced. So were the Arabs in Spain, or the Persians, whose
languages, perhaps, have a grammar that simply doesn’t need punctuation to
clarify. Perhaps our old English is just too weak, and in need of
non-alphabetical little helpers. On Arabic punctuation, and grammatical
parsing, I refer you to future posts. And anyway, can one not speak of a
society as a civilization without writing? Can one please not speak about
civilization at all?
While never stating as much, I think the book means to
say that punctuation enables greater speed in reading (also, amongst others,
via silent reading), and greater clarity of understanding, hence smoother
communication overall. Smoother communication leads to better relationships
over long distances, which leads to increased trade and economy, which
encourages improvements in technology, which feeds back into communication
making that faster and smoother.
And here I am, reading on and on, patiently asking myself when the author is going to speak about the messiness that characterises communication. Most of the time anyway. The unintended glitches, the deliberate obfuscations, ambitious ambiguities. Life and literature. The stuff that’s more interesting than law and order.
Essentially, the driving assumption of the book is nefarious and simply untrue Whiggish history: namely that we move towards improvement, and improvement is clarity, capitalism, light. is It calls punctuation ‘the icing on the cake’, providing the ‘finishing touch’ (p.6) to writing. That both means we have stopped innovating and speak like Shakespeare (which is when the author locates that fixing and icing), and it means punctuation is an afterthought of language, rather than a co-evolutionary phenomenon. It’s all just too neat and pretty.
The rest of the book is an innocent assembly of
anecdotes (such as Kurt Vonnegut, describing the semi-colon as bisexual because
it can’t decide it wants to belong to the light comma pause or the heavy
The core tenet of Signs of Civilization is intriguing: take punctuation seriously. Take writing seriously. But it fails to deliver a thoughtful, (self-)critical exploration of its own terms that it cannot even find its way into introductory courses on the topic. Thus I turn to the magisterial David Crystal and his exquisite book on the topic.
One of the more straightforward tasks of punctuation is to clarify the boundaries between words and sentences in a written text. Visual cues are spaces between words, and marks, such as hyphens, commas, full stops. In contrast to scriptio continua of classical times, whenwordswouldbestrungtogetherwithoutsuchspacesorsigns, it was impossible to sight-read a text. So, punctuation helps us realize where one word ends, and another one starts. This makes relative sense. But what about speech?
How is it possible that, when we speak, we don’t have such signposts as punctuation marks or spaces telling us about word segments? Well, because we don’t need them. Even when someone speaks one word after another without change of tone and without pause between words or sentences at all, the hearer can still tell the difference between them.
Most of the time anyway. A notable exception being ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. Of course, even if the hearer did stumble across the two homophones the first time round, they’re likely to correct their mishearing through the context. And apart from that, recordings have in fact shown that there is a difference between the /ai/ sound of ‘ice’ and ‘I’. There is a greater emphasis on the verb, and a greater pause between pronoun and verb, and the equivalent sounds of the nice dessert.
So, although there’s plenty of potential for comedy in the flowing together of ‘might rain’ and ‘my train’ or ‘that’s tough’ and ‘that stuff’, and indeed ‘fork handle’ and ‘four candle’, we’re generally pretty adapt at “juncture”, the speech boundary where one word ends and another starts in continual talk. Tools of juncture can be minuscule pausing, changes of pitch, gesture. And probably also familiarity with words, and the language that contains them.
The same probably counts for music. I remember participating
in an experiment about making sense of unfamiliar musical phrases when I was a
student: you had to listen to music from China and India (if you were
unfamiliar with that music), and push a button whenever you thought a musical
phrase had ended. I have forgotten what the outcome was, and the purpose, but I
distinctly remember the feeling of being completely lost, trying to listen for
some kind of sense, or at least repetition of a sound I had already heard, but
all my attempts at realizing the music’s structure dissolved in increasingly
frantic pushing of buttons, and eventually giving up to befuddled confusion. I
just couldn’t read that music.
So, what we do naturally, without ever thinking about
it, and without seemingly spending much energy on, juncture that is, is quite
Just like turn-taking, the bigger sister of juncture, as it were. That’s us taking turns in a conversation, the transition from me to you, and back to me.
Telling quite when somebody is (or rather will be) finished depends on gestures, facial expressions, gaze, grammatical cues, pitch, and (very much so) pauses. Those pauses, though, are incredibly short, and, amazingly, nearly universal in all kinds of languages. 200 milliseconds. That’s how long (short!) it takes to pick up the mantle of speech of someone else and make your own contribution. But because it takes three times the time to retrieve even a single word from memory, and get ready to say it, that’s 600 milliseconds, and some 1500 milliseconds to get a short clause onto our tongue, we by force need to prepare our answer while the other is speaking. Else conversations would take for ever.
This simultaneous comprehension and production of language does not mean not listening. It simply suggests how incredibly adept we are at talking, talking together, that is. Our brains are working hard to minimize the gap between conversational turns, trying to smooth that tricky transition period. There’s always something that can go wrong when we move from one state of being to another. Witness all those promising revolutions turning sour.
Transitions create a momentary vacuum into which
something, someone, else can step, pulling the flow of what should be into what
could be. Something else. Transitions are the vulnerable Achilles heel in the
body of talk.
Perhaps, there is also opportunity in that gap. Someone can seize the word whose turn it wasn’t.
Interruptions might happen, regardless of pauses,
effectively forcing a turn.
Overlap occurs when we wrongly predict, or when
someone keeps talking although their cues suggested they wouldn’t.
There’s lots that can go (productively) wrong in
turn-taking, but the overall bent remains: humans are good talkers, and we’re
smooth-talkers, bouncing the tennis ball back and forth effortlessly, as
Montaigne imagined 400 years ago.
And the role of punctuation in all of that? Well, since
speech comes first, and writing is a representation of that (first and
foremost, at least), punctuation imitates what we do without thinking about it.
The spaces between words signalling their boundaries are the juncture, the rest
of the marks indicate those things helping us take turns: question and
exclamation mark symbolize a rise in pitch and final emphasis; comma, colon,
and semi-colon create different kinds of light pauses after which there may be
a turn, but the transition is iffy; a full stop is the big pause signalling a definite
turn; a dash represents a rebel turn, an interruption.
I like the thought of punctuation being rebellious. It’s so much more than clarifying signposts, or self-effacing functional traffic lights managing the flow of words, the less visible the better. Punctuation, as much as junctures and turn-taking gaps, can also be stumbling blocks purposefully hindering speech. They show a red light, but push you over the crossroads anyway. And then you’re off to something way more interesting.
For how turn-taking plays out in drama, especially Shakespeare, check out the brand-new book by my friend and former colleague Dr Oliver Morgan.