Yes, yes, I know.

Just a nun, picking some penis for lunch.

The title is a hook to get people reading. But it’s true. There is phallic-based punctuation. I mean, a mark looking like a penis, and deliberately being called so.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

In classical times, there was no such thing as lower case, and no space between words SOWRITINGWOULDLOOKLIKETHIS, and readers would punctuate it themselves.

In the third century B.C., the head librarian of the library at Alexandria wanted to facilitate reading (and pronouncing) of Greek for non-native speakers who would have trouble knowing where one word starts and another ends, let alone where the boundaries of sentences (and hence nuggets of argument) were.

Aristophanes introduced diacritical marks for pronunciation like so έ . He also suggested a system of dots placed between rhetorical-grammatical parts of the sentence, so that people knew when to pause. Side-stepping the knotty issue of the difference (or not) between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation: the system included a dot at the top of the line for a final pause after a whole sentence, a dot in the middle for a short pause, and a dot at the bottom for a medial pause.

One might think of them as corresponding with parts of the sentence, like so:

DOT (full stop)

      DOT  (comma)

              DOT   (colon)

Donatus from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans really took on this system (called distinctiones), but it wasn’t lost: Dyonisius of Thrax included it in his grammar of the second century B.C.; several hundred years (and a massive religio-political change) later, Christian scholar Donatus picks it up again in his influential grammar of the 4th century A.D.; and 300 years after that, scholar and churchfather Isidore of Seville revives the punctuation dot system via Donatus in his widely circulating Etymologies of the 7th century.

People still hadn’t thought of including spaces between words as aids for reading (lots of potential reasons for that such as over-familiarity with Latin and hence no need for further clarification; and trying to control who has access to the word in all its manifestations, hence excluding people who didn’t know Latin well). – Space between words seems like one of those things after which there is no going back, something that was only waiting to be “discovered”. But not yet. Not by Isidore.

The dot system did circulate slowly but surely. Isidore re-arranged the sequence of the points in a more logical way (the shortest pause dot at the bottom, followed by the medial pause, and the final pause dot at the top of the line). The comma dot was called ‘subdistinctio’ (because under the ‘disctinctio’ colon, and ‘punctus’ period dot). He also openly linked the level of dot with the grammatical-rhetorical sentence constituent of period, colon, and comma (for more on this here).

That’s interesting, but when is the penis coming?! Patience, patience.

Sometime in the course of the late 7th century, the Next Big Thing happened, and spacing between words was invented. Thank you, Irish monks, who struggled with Latin, and tried to make parsing easier! Confused by all the similar-looking syllables of Latin, and the by-then unfamiliar rhythms of sentences, insular monks would add tiny spaces between words when copying in order to distinguish one word from the other. They were generally interested in the graphic looks of the page and writing, since that was how they encountered Latin mostly: silently. As a written symbol. (Of course, there’s the liturgy which is very much aural and oral, and which needed punctuation for proper enunciation, but we won’t look at that for now).

An Irish psalter with large first letter, followed by diminuendo letters (progressively getting smaller), but no word spacing yet.

So. We go into the later Middle Ages with some well-established customs: dots at different levels of the line, space between words, upper and lower case letters, capital letters at the beginning of sentences, lines between paragraphs, indentations, and other decorative symbols to mark one section off of another.

There was no such thing as a unified way of writing, or punctuating. Local variation in script, pronunciation, material of writing, individual habits, and kind or genre of writing meant significant overlap in approach, and general confusion or collision. Some people thought the dot system wasn’t all that useful and suggested different signs. (The penis is coming!)

The early 13th century scholar and letter writer Boncompagno da Signa, for example, proposes a two symbol system: / and __

He calls ___ virgula plana, the ‘flat wand’, and recommends it for final pauses after completing the sense of the sentence.

This / is the virgula suspensiva, the ‘suspended’ or, I think it is safe to say ‘erect wand’’, for any medial pause of whatever kind after a sentence unit whose sense is incomplete.

Yep, here it is.

Virgula means wand, little twig…and, in medieval jargon, penis.

So if you need to pause a little, but still want to keep going, you use the erect wand. Once you’re done, and have dispensed with your intellectual vigour, you can put the twig to rest flat on the line.

Boncompagno. What a joker.

The virgula was taking over far and wide, and stuck around for quite some time even in the early modern period. It’s easy to make with the quill, just a forward slash; it can easily be inserted into writing after the fact (unlike, for example, a decorative hedera or ivy leaf used to section off paragraphs). And you can’t really mistake it for anything else, an abbreviation for example (which is what happened with the dots); there’s little confusion potential (as with the dots which floated up and down the line in relation to the size of letters according to the individual habit of the scribe). It’s just…a slash. There.

Fast forward humanism and the early days of the printing press. In incunabula (early printed books between 1450-1500), you will still find the virgula, as printers and typesetters imitate the looks of manuscript books. Within one generation of printers, the art comes into its own, producing sophisticated craftsmen-scholars who explore the possibilities of the new medium in terms of offering a highly legible, elegant classically-minded look.

Venice printer-superstar Aldus Manutius did not only invent the semi-colon, but also the hook-shaped comma that we are used to today. Oh, and italics and roman type, of course.

picture of Bernardino Loschi and Aldus Manutius
Aldus being handsome.

The 1499 edition of Pietro Bembo’s De aetna printed by Aldus is a first in many ways: first to introduce the invented-from-scratch semi-colon for more subtle pausing; first to use roman type; first to use the new form of the comma.

While the semi-colon took a while to be embraced and understood, the comma and roman type took the writing world in a storm, producing similar type faces like Garamond (my favourite), or Jenson, and spreading the sexy curvy new comma all across Europe.

Via Paris, the comma migrated northwards, arriving in London in the 1520s (roman type had been used by Pynson in 1502, by Wynkyn in 1528). Although the virgule remained firmly attached to blackletter type, and blackletter to vernacular texts and forms, the comma invaded blackletters and was used interchangeably with the virgule for those works. Not so for humanist/Latin/roman texts which would remain populated by the stylish Italianate comma.

In 1534, Wynkyn would print his Latin-English Cicero with facing pages in roman plus comma, and blackletter plus virgule. You can see that nicely here:

The thre bookes of Tyllyes offyces both in latyne tonge [et] in englysshe, lately translated by Roberte Whytinton poete laureate, 1534.

In 1557, Tottel, although celebrating their new Italianate forms, prints Wyatt’s and Surrey’s English verse in blackletter (but with the Aldus comma).

At the same time, the virgule was pretty much still alive and kicking in manuscript, witness the Devonshire poetry anthology, with some of Wyatt’s verse.

Fol. 69r. Witness the end-of-line virgula, but also within the line, e.g. the penultimate line ‘sins ton bye tother / dothe lyve and fede thy herte’.

In a way, the virgule is still alive, in the Italian and French name for ‘comma’.

It’s fascinating how the two marks of punctuation referring to pretty much the same phenomenon of language (a short pause) can come to symbolize so many social and cultural issues pre-occupying people at the time: new ways of learning and expression competing with old, native ways; the representation of that learning, unfamiliar looks of pages, and old crowded angular shapes; a technology standardizing how text would look like for the writing culture of an entire continent, and that within a few years, and allowing vast numbers of identical reproduction to circulate far and wide; a fascination with that technology, but also an anxiety to lose tradition, tried and trusted.

That’s why I feel so close to early modern people.  

So yes, that was the penis punctuation. Can’t get any better than that! Or do we think brackets maybe look like…? Or maybe the ! like …?

Just going to leave this here until I have found (invented?) vaginal punctuation.

Crassly Stupid: Welcome to the World of Grammar (and Rhetoric)

A while ago, at the end of May or beginning of June, I wrote an encyclopedia entry on the role of punctuation in literature (and not a cameo appearance at that!), and was thrown back to the basics – or so I thought: the basics are actually not basic at all, but quite hard to wrap your head around. I was grappling with the relationship of punctuation between grammar and rhetoric, roughly, between syntactical sense based units of language, and pause and rhythm in performance, that is, reading out loud. I’m re-reading Parkes’ magisterial work, uncovering punctuation in the West from Antiquity onwards (wait for the Big Review of it shortly), and I find myself wondering again: just what is the difference? What is the difference between rhetorical punctuation and grammatical punctuation? In the classical sense, I guess.

I mean, what is a period? And a colon, and a comma. For Shakespeare, Jonson, Erasmus, and Cicero.

A period (I think) is a unit of words that is complete in terms of grammar and of meaning (sententium).

A period is made of at least two colons which are themselves made of at least two commata. Those terms don’t refer to the marks as such (since the Romans didn’t really have punctuation marks at all), but the verbal units within the marks, and it’s only with time that the names also migrated to refer to the marks themselves. Since Isidore of Sevilla was still describing the ancient Greek dot system in the 7th century, but Renaissance scholars like Aldus and Erasmus speak of colons to refer to the mark as well, that conflation between sign and verbal unit must have occurred in between, during the Middle Ages, while the dots moved up and down the line, acquired little hooks and became commas, and or twinned themselves to a colon. In any case, in the classical framework, the terms refer to the verbal unit as a whole. So, a sentence could look like this:

       Xxx , xxx : xxx , xxx.

Or:  Comma, comma : comma, comma.

Or:   C  O  L  O  N    :  C  O  L  O  N.

Or:   P         E        R         I        O    D.

One sentence, two colons, four commata. Right? I hope it’s right!

The comma seems most straightforward: a unit that is incomplete in both sense and grammar.

A colon is a grammatically complete unit which, however, lacks somewhat in sense. It is complete in sense too, but not in meaning (the overall meaning gathered through the entire sentence). It’s understandable on its own, but not really, not ideally. As it were. I guess it’s a grey zone.

Why, then, should there be any difference at all between punctuation marking grammatical boundaries, and boundaries of pause and rhythm? It seems to me that they co-incide pretty much all the time.

However, my classical training is on the small side (little Latin, and less Greek); I loved Latin at school, and took some Greek at uni, but not enough to get “it”. Then again, I also don’t quite get it when the sentences are in English, and the typesetter’s punctuation periodic. Or the Shakespearean composition? Perhaps both. Let’s have a look at punctuation in the wild:

At This 'Tempest,' Digital Wizardry Makes 'Rough Magic' - The New ...
Ariel in the high-tech RSC production of The Tempest in 2017.

The Tempest memorably starts with a shipwreck from Milan, the frightened passengers scrambling for something to hold onto, while the mariners attempt to get the ship under control. Consider the Boatswain’s speech, peppered with colons and commata (the marks) in a way that we are quite unused to today (I’m italicizing quotations rather than use quotation marks, hoping it’ll be easier on the eyes).

In the Boatswain’s second speech, there are nine commata, five colons, and one period, expressing the entire “meaning” of the Boatswain cheering his mariners on and shouting orders. So far so good, that’s not hard to identify thanks to the punctuation. The grammar and punctuation marks make sense together: the Boatswain’s indistinct shouts and encouragements to the others form the first colon (from Heigh to harts), with three internal commata, incomplete units of grammar that can’t stand on their own (they don’t have a subject and verb is what I mean, I guess).

In the last colon you have one independent and one dependent clause (beginning with the if) which necessitates a comma in between. The if-clause couldn’t stand on its own, it’s not a colon. It’s a comma, and it makes of the previous clause a comma, too. The three imperatives (Take…, Tend…, Blow) are, or could be, colons, because they are grammatically complete. The clauses starting Take and Tend are indeed colons. All three of them are patterned in an isocolic manner, they’re grammatically parallel, so it’s natural they can be grouped together as colons.

What puzzles me is the second colon (yare, yare).

As far as I know, yare is a synonym of ‘ready’; but then, two adjectives do not make a colon, no? If the adverb cheerely in the first colon only makes a comma for itself, and indeed ‘yare’ used as adverb (yarely) in the Master’s speech just before the Boatswain’s – why yare, yare as a colon, and not two commas either attached to the first colon, or introducing the second?

Perhaps it’s a question of rhythm. The first colon has a nice chiastic ring to it (my heartscheerilycheerilymy harts); the third, fourth, and fifth colon are beautifully lined up in isocolic imperative structure (plus the if-clause gentling us as coda out of the period). This is an incredibly dense scaffold where every single part talks to every other in their environment; breaking that up through two loose commata as tail or head to the previous or subsequent colon would make for a baggy rhythm of an otherwise taught period whose bones would be quite effaced. (Also, might it be that an imperative “Be yare”, be ready, is just ellided, so that the phrase is an implied imperative, just like those others around it?)

That yare, yare colon, then, might not be a grammatically correct colon, but a rhetorically effective one, working as brief respite between the highly-formal beginning and end of the speech – which doesn’t come across as highly rhetorical at all! Sure, the semantically meaningless shouts [h]eigh and yare, yare encouragements one would expect from a boatswain in a shipwreck, make for an ambience of urgency and dangerous excitement; but the tightly formal elements don’t intrude as formal. They contribute to the up and down back and forth forward and forward rhythm of the period.

I mean the monosyllabic stress of [h]eigh and yare, after which there follows a pause, creating an up and down rhythm (somehow? Is it just me?) – then the chiasmus, circling back onto itself – then the three imperatives, pounding monosyllables that push the beat of the period forward. That seems to be an awful lot of sonic movement in a scene of watery turmoil. We can hear the sea heaving up and down and all around, and, if we are in the theatre, we can see the Boatswain pointing to different mariners when he shouts his orders, and we hear how he manages to say his speech in exactly one big breath.

Consummate art, dissembling that it is.

Still. Consider this:

Here is one long colon, stretching from yare to Maine-course. But could it not also have been yare, lower, lower : bring her to Try with Maine-course ?

Perhaps the long sequence expresses a now more urgent hurry compared to the beginning. She’s not going up and down anymore, she’s going down. There’s no time to breathe.

I love the very long dash, maybe hiding some expletive (which could be added by the actor in the production! It’s prose so nobody can mess up the rhythm through some insulting creativity); the dash is a visual and aural shock of brevity and interruption, a wordless black line, after the longish wordish colon.

Yes, perhaps it makes sense like this. Then again, whose is the punctuation? Shakespeare’s? The typesetter’s? Set like this out of pragmatic necessity or true intent? Or custom and convention, according to the setter’s or author’s education? Perhaps nothing matters except for what’s there, however it got there.

Based on my analysis, The Tempest’s punctuation here is both grammatical and rhetorical. It’s based on the concept of the period, but also on a strongly aural way of thinking.

But it’s also rhetorical, and very much so, this being a play that was and can be performed. Consider also the presence of non-periodic punctuation marks: Heigh my hearts, cheerely, cheerely my harts isn’t actually a colon, no? It is, rhetorically speaking, but not grammatically. It doesn’t have a verb. It’s just like yare, yare, but it’s longer so you kind of don’t realize, I guess. So, the punctuation of the beginning of the speech is based on effective pausing in performance, while the second part converges grammatical and rhetorical punctuation. Phew. I’m still not sure.

So, was punctuation in early modern plays just an aid to performance? With three gradations of pausing?


Here’s the first dialogue between Prospero and Miranda as they watch the ship sink, she anxious for the lives seemingly lost, he excited to have his revenge finally initiated. It’s when he finally tells her who she is:

So, here’s Prospero saying (in a round-about way that just suits that long imposed exile, from his dukedom, and hence himself): I’m the real Duke of Milan, you’re my only heir. We’re royals.

It’s about family relationships, so it’s suitable there shouldn’t be a full stop anywhere except the end. If there was the pause of finality inherent in a period after daughter, for example, that’d be too much. It’d be too much of a cut-off. So would a colon.

A comma is decidedly too little of a distinction between mother and father.

A semicolon is perfect.

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John William Waterhouse’s Miranda, watching the ship in distress.

The semicolon is a bump small enough to not disrupt the flow of speaking (and Prospero is excited), while pause enough to mark off two different (though related) things. The mother and the father. The comma between father and daughter, then, figures their proximity: he is the Duke of Millaine, she is his onely heire. Note the lack of space after the comma – a common occurrence (also elsewhere in the dialogue) which may or may not contribute to that communication of closeness between parent and child. Punctuation is contingent (I’ll come back to that below).

The punctuation in this section functions in a way of seeing, not hearing. You need to see where the marks are, and which ones. You need to see the pauses. You can’t hear the difference between a semicolon or colon pause (I don’t think so, at least). The semicolon is a very nice pause, in the sense of subtle. It’s more to do with a certain kind of free flowy thought when one doesn’t quite want to end, but also needs to mark a pause of sorts; here, punctuation gains bodies; hands; sentences grasping each other across the void of the new clause. So the punctuation in The Tempest is both for the performer, the playgoer/listener, and the reader. At least, that’s how it looks like to me.

And what about that questionable status of punctuation? Did the typesetters work from Shakespeare’s original manuscript? Would they even have cared about his punctuation, if so? Did he care? Punctuation in the early modern printing shop is such a paradoxical controversial creature, it deserves its own entry (soon! I’ve got a couple of articles to read first). But basically, it all depends on

(a) the papers from which the typesetters worked;

(b) how they worked (e.g. was there someone reading the text out, or did they sit and work on it individually);

(c) the experience of the typesetters or layout planners (would they need to squeeze out spaces after commas for lack of space? Would they need to put really long dashes, because they happened to have too much of it?);

(d) the corrector (rarely authors themselves);

(e) available type;

(f) correct dis-assembling of type after printing so as to avoid messing up the “purity” of the cases;

(g) the education of typesetters. Someone with a bit of a humanist education or familiarity with reading might very well be able to recognize periodic style. Someone familiar with the play at the theatre might punctuate in a more oral/aural way.

And probably lots of issues more. The question is should we care? Should be care who put the mark in? Should we care about the marks at all?

I think we should care. But we also shouldn’t over-care.

I personally don’t mind at all if someone trashes my analysis of the semicolon, for example, by pointing out those contingencies of early modern punctuation. I know my case is hypothetical, and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about really close close-reading. Maybe all that stuff is totally co-incidental. That still doesn’t mean it’s *not* worthwhile thinking about. Only because an experiment is nor replicable doesn’t mean it’s garbage. A case well made is one that I shall always engage with, no?

In any case, I had come up against this somehow-yes-but-also-not coincidence of rhetorical and grammatical punctuation time and again, and I just don’t understand. Parkes says periodic punctuation is a feature of rhetoric, meaning oratory, meaning performance. Which surprised me, as I thought it was the other way around, that colons, and commata signalled grammatical sectioning rather.

This blue is intentional.

So, I read a few grammar books in the hope of finding out the difference, but wasn’t successful at all. I read The Blue Book of Grammar which is a good enough introduction, with some quirky stuff to say about punctuation: while there is exactly *one* rule for the full stop (‘The End’), there are 16 for the comma, many of them with several sub-points down the alphabet. The semi-colon is an ‘audible pause’ between a comma and a full stop – which I found curious for two reasons: are there inaudible pauses? And is a semi-colon not rather a pause between a comma and, well, a colon? For the history of the semi-colon, see the next entry in a week!

Hyphens ‘notify readers’ (40) which words glue together and which don’t. I love the author’s free-for-all permission to be overly punctuatie: ‘Never hesitate to add a hyphen if it solves a possible problem,’ (42).

Ellipses, like always (and like brackets), get paradoxical good and bad press as ‘useful in getting right to the point’ when they represent deletion of irrelevant material, but a sign of weak brain capacity when used otherwise (they show ‘a wavering in an otherwise straightforward sentence’). There’s a fantastic monograph on ellipses by Anne Henry which I still have to read and review (but am apprehensive about, because she’s just so very good, and it’s going to take all my dwarf-on-the-shoulders-of-giants courage to dig in).

I finally also read through the famous You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies by Eric Partridge from 1953. He doesn’t really talk about grammar much, nor about any theoretical or historical concept of punctuation. He just pushes his controversially made opinion, and offers plenty of examples. It was fun reading Partridge; he doesn’t apologize for the way he puts things, which is refreshing: the semi-colon is ‘clear-cut’, for example, the parentheses ‘smooth’ and the colon ‘cultured’ (11).

Partridge is definitely a fellow-enthusiast, arguing for punctuation’s intrinsic belonging to written language, because it participates in structure. Plentifully abound the flowery metaphors and similes: ‘punctuation is not something that, like a best suit of clothes, you put on for special occasions’ (11).

He’s also nice in his definitions about the glyphs: ‘true points’ are only points, that is, characters telling you about pausing. ? and ! are ‘marks’, and not really punctuation at all but elocutionary signs (82). In the first section, there are also ‘supernumeraries’ (dashes, parentheses, and ellipses). You can leave them out, but they kind of still belong.

The second section describes allies and accessories, among the which the capitals, italics, apostrophes, hyphens, quotation marks and more.

I appreciate this specificity. I had a bone to pick with too broad understandings of punctuation before (here), and I myself am guilty of it. (I’ve discussed hyphens before, for example, but really they’re not punctuation, they’re morphology of language, no?)

In any case, Partridge does short shrift of those pernickety petty language policers who want hard borders between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation: he likens a text to a country, grammar being the elected parliament, logic the head-of-state, and common-sense the people.

Got it?

Me neither.

I’m not entirely sure if Partridge intends for us to unpick his metaphor at all…I think it’s more a case of ‘grasp its drift immediately but don’t ask further’ kind of thing.

He does speak truth, though, and beautifully so, and worth quoting in full:

‘[T]o insist upon the dichotomy dramatic-grammatical would be both pedantic and inept. For much of the time, as is inevitable, the two coincide: a speaker tends to pause wherever either logic or grammar makes a pause; and even the most ‘logical’ or ‘grammatical’ of punctuators tends, when he is writing dialogue, to point what is clearly an elocutionary or dramatic pause’ (5).

Speaking of the comma, he goes on to say that to ‘attempt a rigid dichotomy’ between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation ‘would be crassly stupid’ (13). And so, perhaps, it is.