Hear ye, hear ye, Greengrocer’s, breathe a sigh of relief

August saw a lot of things the world did not need, such as anti-corona-mask protests everywhere, the Trumpian banshee Kimberley Guilfoyle screaming her head off about the best which was yet to come, and her husband’s self-published 29,99 dollar book on the apocalyptic plans of commie candidate Sleepy Joe and the Democrat’s Defense of the Indefensible. We need to put a [sic] there: the Democrat’s [sic] Defense of the Indefensible. Yes, it’s sickening. There’s either one single Platonic ur-democrat from whom all the policies flow, or Don Junior needs to mind his possessive apostrophes a little more. [I’m italicizing quotations to avoid apostrophe-quotation-mark-confusion.]

Alas, it’s now corrected…

But –’s  -s’ woes also trouble politicians this side of the pond: when Bojo sent the then EU-president Tusk a letter, asking for yet another Brexit extension, he, too, struggled with placing the possessive apostrophe correctly:

“We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbours and friends in this continent our people’s [sic] share.”

That’s surely our peoples’ share, as in all the 28 peoples (or rather nations) of the EU. But this would mean understanding share as noun. Then, there’d be a comma missing, as in this continent, our peoples’ share. Bit clumsy, but hey ho. Most probably, though, Boris intended no apostrophe at all, and yet it crept in. Is that a problem?

Yes and no.

It depends, among others, what we want our institutions to do and represent, and it depends if we buy into the idea of standardization.

Most written languages nowadays will have a degree of standardization of spelling and grammar. This makes a lot of sense since it would take quite a while to rid a tekst if evriuan wrout it the wai thei thot wes rait, no? Forgive me, this was a bad attempt at idiosyncratic phonetic spelling!  Punctuation, like orthography and grammar, does its part in supporting standardization for the sake of readability.

Then there’s the question of official uses of language, or rather, language used by officials. Ideally, you’d want your institutions and representatives to seem (if not be, hopefully?) credible, and one way of projecting that trust is through using language in a way that most people, over many centuries, have somehow or other agreed on. Conventions. Not talking here about poets, and meme-creators having fun wiz cheezeburgers. We’re talking about a kind of reference point in the general confusion of life.

Obviously, it’s not a big deal if St Andrews Street in Cambridge has lost its possessive apostrophe over the years it’s been there. We still understand. But punctuation, an apostrophe – that tiny mini footprint of an ant – if we take care over it or not, and in which contexts – that does say something about who we are, doesn’t it. It’s not perfectionism. It’s not unquestioning dogma-worship. It’s not patronizing pedantry.

It’s care.

It’s paying attention.

It’s attending to something beyond the necessity and functionality of communicating a message.

Should it worry us if the leader of a society does not make really seriously sure he pays attention in a message of such import?

I think it should.

Should it worry if someone misplaces an apostrophe in an agitated text message?

I don’t think so.

But where did it come from at all? The apostrophe, possessive and otherwise. Here followeth a potted history of the little mark, leaving a big imprint on our ways of relating to each other.

I am *no* grammar guru, nor a particular grammar fan, but here’s what I understand about the two main uses of the apostrophe in English:



Elision is pretty straightforward (or so one thinks, but more on that later): usually, the apostrophe flags up that one letter has been omitted somewhere in the word, like so: ever –> e’er

If it’s in connection to a verbal expression of whatever kind, you mush the words after the personal pronoun together:  I have not –> I haven’t    I should have –> I should’ve

As you see, the apostrophe can also stand for two omitted letters. It can actually stand for a whole lot, but that’s a treasure I am keeping for later on in this post. Hang in there, it gets so exciting!

[Note well, the apostrophe is not an abbreviation, as in Mr –> Master  or    Co. –> Company (for some thoughts on abbreviations & dots, come back later…at some point.]

So. We’ve got our elisions, and now we need our possessives, and here it gets sticky: a singular owner of something is easy, that’s the dog’s bones. When you have several, it’s the dogs’ bones.

Social Distancing When Not Done During Covid | Garfieldhug's Blog
Watch the distance between the possessive pronoun and letter elision.

If you have a singular noun ending on -s or -x, the rule applies, but the pronunciation changes, as in Bridget Jones’s Diary pronounced as /Joneses/. If you have a name with a double -s like Lynn Truss’s book, it’s preferred to rephrase as the book by Lynn Truss.

Hey, F.R. Leavis, have you met Miss Jones?

I learnt that if the noun is a classical name, you treat it as if it was plural, like Aristophanes’ punctuation. This rule is not accepted everywhere, and the (in)famous Apostrophe Protection Society which will appear again later makes no kind of exception at all. Not even for Jesus and Jesus’s disciplines. Rad.

According to linguist David Crystal, the possessive s stems not from the kind of early modern post-positioned possessive pronoun (the king his book morphing to the kingis book and eventually the king’s book), but rather from the Old English case system, signalling the genitive case through -es or -ys- or -is. Over the centuries, the vowel would fall away, leaving only the apostrophized-s behind.

There are more apostrophe uses such as marking plural when there is potential for confusion (the 1990’s; dot your i’s), and of course there’s the rhetorical figure of the apostrophe: when a speaker addresses an absent person or object or entity, such as Stella, the moon, or death. Or love, as in this sonnet by Lady Mary Wroth in which the speaker laments falling prey to over-whelming love thus losing her peace of mind. She apostrophizes Cupid (‘Thy babish tricks’):

Why should we not love’s purblind charms resist?

    Must we be servile, doing what he list?

    No, seek some host to harbour thee: I fly

Thy babish tricks, and freedom do profess.

    But O my hurt makes my lost heart confess

    I love, and must: so farewell liberty. (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, 16)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word with this meaning is 1533, just basically taken over from classical style manuals without any kind of Englishing. The first record of apostrophe as the little hovering sign marking elision or possession is from 1598. And from Shakespeare. But let’s have a look at its inception in the first place.

The apostrophe as we know it springs, of course, from the mind of Punctuation Super Star & Bestest Printer Genius of his age Aldo Manuzio, and it first appears in the ground-breaking publication of 1496 that also features the invention of italics, the semi-colon, and the hook-shaped comma we use today: it’s Pietro Bembo’s De aetna. Always the classicist, Aldo imports accents (that’s diacritical marks) from Greek into Latin, as well as the marking of vowel elision.

In 1529, the apostrophe occurs in France for the first time, squeezing between the collision of two vowels for ease of pronunciation. Its earliest English appearance is in William Cunningham’s Cosmographical Glasse printed by John Day in 1559. It’s to mark elision, not possession (David Crystal from whom I take this information offers two telling examples: the partes of th’earthe as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon legacy of the moones age). Crystal writes how it took around half a century for the apostrophe to settle enough to be widely used, though confusion quite how persists.

In his early 17th-century English grammar, Ben Jonson complains about the printers omitting his marks for laziness (or for saving space? for setting type faster?), but, Crystal suggests, ‘genuine uncertainty’ persists. And that’s perhaps why there is so much variation over the title of Shakespeare’s play which records the apostrophe’s first use as something other than the rhetorical figure. And that’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Or should that be Love’s Labours Lost? Or even Loves Labours Lost? If we’re not sure, they sure weren’t sure.

Alright, reader, if you thought there was anything technical in the above, you’re in for the deep ride now. But we can take the technical hurdle step by step. And of course, getting up close and cosy with punctuation means slowing down and looking!

Branagh’s early Shax.

So, when a play was printed in Shakespeare’s time, it would most of the time be printed as a thin pamphlet sort of thing, a booklet, which you’d pick up from a publisher/printer/book seller himself or herself (yes, there were women), and have them bound at a book binder’s, and only if you were collecting. You’d probably bind them with other plays, probably with a whole bunch of other kinds of texts that you wanted to preserve. These publications – relatively cheap, relatively vulnerable to time and use – are called quartos, because they were printed on big sheets that were folded four times (hence the name).

Quartos are a common enough size for the time; there was also octavo (folded eight times, so smaller, cheaper, easier to tuck away in your pocket), and folio (folded just once, so quite big, more expensive, for special kinds of books like a church Bible, theological or classical works, histories, maps).

When a text or author got the folio-treatment, that meant they did it in the publishing world of the Renaissance. The collected plays of Shakespeare came out post-humously in 1623 in what’s called the First Folio (there were two more in the 17th century). There is not a single authorial manuscript for those plays which are in the folio, so we can’t tell what spelling or punctuation or stage direction or or or Shakespeare intended – and indeed if he cared. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be thinking about those things, as the people who did make those publication choices were his contemporaries, after all, and most of the time sensitive to a whole lot of contextual conditions we’re not sensitive to.

There’s so much more to say, but the quarto/folio distinction is the most important bit to remember. I’m going to call the play LLL, because that’s least confusing, apostrophe-wise. So, the first individual publication of LLL was a quarto in 1598. Title page titles of both quarto and folio are always in roman, running titles (the title on the top of the page) and table of content titles always italicized. It doesn’t really matter for the point in question, so I just italicize all of them here.

On the title page of quarto, then, the play is called Loues labors lost. The ‘u’ of Loues just means ‘v’, don’t worry about it. The running title, however, is Loues Labor’s lost. Does that make any difference? Well, the title without apostrophe is less clear about the plural, for one. Are we to imagine a pause between the words? Something like LOVES     LABOURS    LOST

The play, after all, is about lots of kinds of love, and lots of people being in it. Love. But that’s maybe straining it a bit. The editor of Arden (third series) says it means ‘the lost labours of love’, perhaps suggesting there are also the successfully accomplished labours of love? Love won? An apostrophe somewhere or other would make sense, one feels.

In the running title, then, it’s clear that Labor is singular, so the labour of love is lost (though that meaning becomes clearer if there’s another earlier apostrophe). Or, more evidently, the labour of many loves is lost.

The signature, fittingly, is L1v-L2r.

The first folio follows quarto’s running title for its title on the title page and its running title (I hope this makes sense! all those titles…), but not for the table of contents of the whole volume which keeps quarto’s apostrophe-free title, and even offers the unique occurrence of Loues Labour lost: should we imagine a dramatic pause here? Loves/Love’s Labour  [drumroll]  Lost!

The second folio of 1632 has Loves Labour’s lost for all three places. And it’s only with the third folio of 1664 that we finally have the title under which the play is now known: Love’s Labour’s Lost. Two apostrophes, two capital L. Mind you, the table of contents title has none at all. Perhaps the typesetters used them all up. This sounds like a joke, but isn’t! Available page space and available type have produced many an interesting variation that seems intended, but is accidental (though not any the less worthy of study therefore!).

One might also take into account Love’s Labour’s Won (or any of its apostrophe versions), a potential lost sequel or misnamed other (Shakespeare?) play. Its first mention is in Francis Meres’s 1598 printed list of Shakespeare plays as Loue labours wonne, following Loue labors lost. This is interesting because ‘love’ is singular, so ‘love labours’ make way more sense as one word (making any apostrophe redundant) than ‘loves labours’.

Francis Meres’s record. /Merses/!

It’s all confusing. Here’s a witty improvisation of a Twitter friend on the topic, when I asked if anyone had thoughts on the play titles: ‘I know a Lib Dem who isn’t happy the Tories have won but loves Labour’s lost’.

All of the above also assumes the typesetters definitely thought about the apostrophe in the way we do today. As possessive, not as marking plural, for example (that famous greengrocer’s’ apostrophe).

Does any of this matter?

Yes and no. As before.

We understand the gist of it: when one is in love, one labours to woo the other, but that’s often labour lost; and after one has watched the play, one knows that Love’s or Cupid’s efforts to ennoble people through the feeling just sometimes run up against realities of lust. We understand the wit and humour, so the number and placing of apostrophes is unlikely to change our overall grasp of the title which is instantaneous enough, and vague enough for this vaguely-ending play.

But then, this is Shakespeare’s play most interested in language, and all its pitfalls and promises, notably represented by the insufferable tutor Holofernes. The title perfectly encapsulates the play’s teasing (of) wit in its three monosyllabic words, initial alliteration followed by assonance, strung together by the final s, regardless of plural or possessive. Aurally speaking, the title is swift, crispy, rolls trippingly off the tongue, and is just so suitable to the energetic repartee-laden dynamic between the couples, and actually everyone to everyone else, servant to mistress, man to woman.

So even though I am hesitant to make a big case about the title variations, they do deserve discussing, especially in relation to the play’s language concerns as a whole.

There’s one person in the play who pushes a love for language to the extreme, and that’s the Pedant, or teacher, Holofernes, who peppers his speeches with inkhorn terms (that’s Latinate English terms), spinning interminable synonym after synonym, for example ‘caelo’, ‘the sky’, ‘the welkin’, ‘the heaven’.

Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel | Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive
The first-mentioned-apostrophe is coming! A Victorian engraving of Holofernes glancing over poetry.

That’s funny, and we can laugh about the caricature of the teacher we all had when we were young (I mean, we the humanist school students in the audience), but it’s a gentle sort of poking fun at the serious business of creating a national language worthy to write great literature in. On a par with Latin and Greek, and Homer, and Virgil. English was thought poor at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in need of words to express depth of thought, so humanists would import classical terms, either wholesale or slightly adapted into English. That often resulted in convoluted unpronounceable terms like ‘exsufflicate’ in Othello which is supposed to mean empty, hence frivolous, and which Othello uses to refer to Iago’s ‘surmises’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. He’s still hanging in there, rejecting the idea of becoming jealous. Some inkhorn terms we kept such as ‘to impede’; some were quickly discarded, and indeed mocked.

Because people were unsure about how to translate certain terms, they would often offer two, or even three English words for one Latin, resulting in massively blown up texts. The widespread habit of keeping notebooks with quotations and elegant expressions for all sorts of thematic occasions when writing a letter or speech also meant people had several alternative phrasings at their disposal, and would pop them all in rather than choose. Never too much of a good thing! That Tudor volubility, then, comes from various sources: the mixed Germanic and Romance nature of English, humanist language teaching, the project of a rich national language, and sheer joy and excitement of playing with words.

So, although we can laugh at someone like Holofernes who’s so over the top prolix, I think he’s also a witness to the one hundred years of profound development of the English language, and attitudes towards it. And love. Of it.

Holofernes’ (or should that be Holofernes’s?) is also the first use of apostrophe as a word referring to the mark for elision. The play has several likely and unlikely couplings, and lots of love poetry passed around. In Act 4, scene 2 a sonnet from Biron to Rosalynd goes astray, and a character reads out what Holofernes calls ‘a staff, a stanza, a verse’ – basically, just a poem. When his friend bungles the metre, Holofernes comments ‘You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.’

This puzzles me, because there are no necessary elisions at all in this sonnet. It’s alexandrines all the way except for two lines which are hypermetrical, that is they have 13 instead of 12 syllables, but you wouldn’t be able to elide any syllable within those lines in order to force it to fit, and anyway, the rhyme words ‘thunder’ and ‘wonder’ stand out nicely. So, I’m thinking that’s perhaps a typically pedantic Holofernian remark, showing that he doesn’t actually get it, and is throwing around unfamiliar terms from classical rhetoric in order to seem oh-so smart. I tried to find a performance but some YouTube-recorded stagings or readings just cut the lines!

I think the apostraphas in the title (and the single, potentially incorrect, mention by Holofernes) attest to the unfixed notions people had of its use. It’s only slowly that apostrophe conventions (and indeed those of a whole host of other punctuation marks) were standardized in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, only then to fall out of favour in the 20th: after a perhaps over-use of punctuation during the 19th century, people preferred what they considered an uncluttered look on the page. That certainly was in the zeitgeist with all the modernist sleekness and straight lines and block features of the Bauhaus design. Think ‘form follows function’. Think simple design. Think sans-serif type (horrible, I know). So, it’s no surprise people will want to re-think if they really need that many marks, and among those the apostrophe which, oftentimes, is not exactly necessary for comprehension.

Vitra Design Museum The Bauhaus #allesistdesign
Vitra-Design Museum, southern Germany.
Looks a bit like Moulin Rouge if you ask me.

Take the high-end store Harrods, for example. It started as Harrod’s Stores in 1849, then the Stores fell away, and it became Harrod’s, and sometimes Harrods. By the early 20th century, there were hardly any apostrophe version of the name around anymore, and none at all after 1920 when the shop officially Ldropped the Stores. We recognize the brand when we see it, and we sort of know that the person giving it its name wasn’t really called Harrods, but Harrod. I think we do, at least. But we’re just not really bothered. The same goes with Boots, and Sainsbury’s (the apostrophe hanging in there), and Waterstone’s which has become Waterstones.

If we generally understand what’s said well enough without the apostrophe, why still keep it? That’s what plenty of thinkers and writers have asked. It’s ‘largely decorative’ and ‘rarely clarifies meaning’ (Peter Brodie), ‘unnecessary’ because ‘context will resolve any ambiguity’ (Adrian Room), and a ‘waste of time’ (John Wells), and even compared to ‘metastatic cancers [and] narcissistic con men’ of which the world will at some point be rid (Anu Garg).

The apostrophe – spreading everywhere, selfish, showy-offy. A fake.

In 1902, George Bernard Shaw already affirms he has been writing cant, wont, havent, whats, and lets with impunity for 20 years. That’s his way of signalling colloquial dialogue. He only makes exceptions for he’ll and hell. Anything else makes the page look ‘ugly’. Here’s what he says in full:

“There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Karte (Kartografie) - Apostrophe Island - MAP[N]ALL.COM
There’s no apostrophe-named bacillus, but here’s apostrophe island in the Antactric.

If Shaw says it, if English professors suggest it, if urban planners, prime ministers, and greengrocers happily omit and misplace the apostrophe (that famous veg seller association is from 1991, by the way, from a book on English by Keith Waterhouse) – if all those treat the poor apostrophe in a cavalier way, why do we get all huffy and puffy and grammar-nazi, correcting rogue bacilli on billboards and street names?

We evidently care.

Else, there’d be no Apostrophe Protection Society with the aim of ‘preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark’. The website of the society founded by John Richards in 2001, is charmingly old-school, and offers little surfing delight except images of apostrophe misdemeanour, and a handful of concise commandments (see Jesus above). Because of Richards advanced age (97 by now), the society closed down in December 2019 – only to see a many hundred-fold increase of clicks. Either through hitting the news with its vanishing quaintness, or because people genuinely Googled apostrophe. There’s a new feature showing monthly page views (ca 2,500 in August), and a world map. It gives me an exquisite sort of joy to see multiple visits from places as vastly different as Honolulu and Iran. That’s the past 9 months. We might be coping with a global pandemic of a century, but we still care.

And we still care although it takes an effort to type an apostrophe on the keyboard of the computer or the phone. It would be so much faster to write without apostrophe, and easier on the old opposable thumbs for those of us who are not exactly digital natives. So the care we do take over punctuation, and particularly apostrophes, becomes a proof for how highly we value the person receiving our message, and a proof that what is being  written is not a dashed off piece of information, but an actual Message.

Enter Double (and Triple and) Contractions in One Word.

We know ’twouldn’t from Shakespearean language. And we also know should’ve, and even shouldn’t’ve. At least in spoken language. The written form does look a bit clumsy. That’s the apostrophe eliding one letter (the n of the negation), and two letters (the ha- of the auxiliary verb), sucking up the space between words into one mega word.

Shouldn’t’ve is not mega, enough, though. Not for the internet.

I found people discussing ‘y’all’ld’ve (you all woudl have), and the formidable y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s, meaning you all will not have had us. This is in answer to “what’s the longest contraction in English still making sense” from a 2017 Reddit subthread in the category NoStupidQuestions. A possible sentence containing this beauty was ‘Y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s scared to death if you didn’t jump off that bridge!”. I’m no sure I understand, but maybe you do.

Another minor digital ripple was in 2016 when someone invented whomst:

And the spin-off whom’stn’t’ve (who must not have).

I’m sure I’ve already said (though not written) shouldn’t’ve, but I only know one person who uses multiple contractions with joy and confidence, so I asked him the why and wherefore. He says it started when he was a teenager, he had a penchant for small things, and would journal in short-hand in small notebooks, trying to use minimal resources to maximum effect.

Then, with the coming of the mobile phone, he tried to press every drop of expressive meaning from the limited number of characters an SMS would allow. Gone are the days! Whatsapp and free unlimited character provision have killed the full stop (maybe), as I’ll write about in another entry.

My friend also says he actually likes how the apostrophe (and the multiple contractions) look like, and that it’s supposed to replicate the spoken, hence create intimacy. Perhaps that’s why university colleagues didn’t appreciate it! But he concurred that going to the length of including multiple contractions means lavishing attention on your writing, and so intimating that you spend time on this person. He also calls those constructions ‘a bit less mundane’ in a world of ‘self-rightously silly’ writing, and a good way ‘to queer the pitch a bit’. Isn’t that wonderfully put? Let’s hope the authorities that be catch up with what’s happening out there in the digital ether: the Oxford English Dictionary has shoulda, but not should’ve, let alone shouldn’t’ve. I think we should use them big time, so that there’s pressure to change.

This has been a long history of a tiny smudge of a mark – that yet like none other is capable of ruffling feathers over a missing or misplaced one.

But the more I work on punctuation, the more relaxed have I become. I think it’s nice to have it, and I think it’s necessary, especially in official correspondence, and perhaps also in public spaces. And perhaps also in private letters. But what punctuation is not is a tool for patronizing and bullying. It just cant be. It’s too wayward and independent for that.

So, before you correct a greengrocers sign next time you see a possessive-looking-plural, think again: if the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare had fun taking it out or putting it back in, why should not we?

I’m going to take a couple of weeks of blog-pause now. If I write such long entries on such minuscule marks, I might as well write the entire book, and you can read it there in a much more comfortable old-school fashion. So, until further notice, I’ll take my leave with a formidable bang of a contraction:


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.

5 Great Island Books That Reimagine The Tempest | Literary Hub
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.

Still Library Isolated: Another Punctuation Book Review

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?

Aren’t they gorgeous…

What’s In a Name? Weird History & Fascinating Trivia - BBR ...

Book Review of a Book on Books

Just a random horse (?) doodle in a BOOK.

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 sense.

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.

Well, not quite the same, but…we are back to images and scrolls.

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.

Torah scrolls, read from right to left.

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.

The direction would be horizontal rather than vertical, at least in classical times.

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 first book. Apocryphcal early Christian material

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.

I’ve written about this here.

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:

The McLuhan Galaxy: Punctuation as Medium

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.

Quentin Matsys, The Banker and His Wife, 1514, Antwerp.

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 executive.

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.

Many, many, and very many meanings for ‘to read’.

Punctuation is a medium with a galaxy of messages.

‘A sad hand at your punctuation’: If writer’s don’t care, why should we?

Ah, remember ‘Blossom’?




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.

Friendship never ends…or so.

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 thin walls.


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 setters?

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:

  1. whether we think punctuation matters
  2. different editing styles
  3. 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 number, stress.

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.

The beginning of Sanditon, Austen’s last unfinished novel. Not yet sure how to set the scene up, so adding and scratching out a lot, but getting into her own in the dialogues.

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.

Collage by Johanna Goodman.

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.

‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ Note the different lengths of dashes at different levels of the line. How to represent these with standardized punctuation?

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 something interesting?

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.

Back to Basics: What is Punctuation?

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).

Editor. Harmless drudge?

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.

Signs of Resistance: Punctuation Politics in Nineteenth-Century Arabic

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 foot in.

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.

So beautiful.

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.

Author and journalist Zaynab Fawwaz, also writer of the first play in Arabic written by a woman.

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.

Hossein al-Tuwayrani’s signs didn’t catch on, but, one imagines, not because of a resistance to punctuation or language reform in itself, but owing to their sheer volume (84 in total), and lack of clarity in terms of use. Al-Tuwayrani divided his signs into three categories, those guiding silent reading which segment sentences and translate emotion, those for tonality when reading aloud such as pauses, and those for body movement when holding a speech. As in the history and status of European punctuation, there’s a double bind again between grammar and rhetoric, the eye/mind, and the ear. I find the last category, that of movement, particularly intriguing as it reminds me of that Roman orator ideal, with Cicero and Quintilian giving advice on how to move the fingers in a certain way, and indeed, al-Tuwayrani proposes to encode movements of the eyes, head, fingers, hands, arms, even feet in specific punctuation marks.

A selection of al-Tuwayrani’s signs, via Awad.

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: «؟»

Hebrew language - Wikiwand

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 strong feelings?

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.

Nelson Mandela the Dildo Collector? The Importance of Proper Listing

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.

Not even the Oxford comma could improve this aberration.

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:

‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce
  2. Meat and fish products; and
  3. Perishable foods’

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.

Note the opening lines.

Thankfully, front singer of Vampire Weekend Ezra Rose explains: “I think the song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”