The Scandalization of Punctuation: Dot. Dot. Dot.

Back in early autumn last year, I came across the Brilliant Club, a charity which sends researchers into schools, teaching their work to 14-year olds. The groups are small, and half of the participants come from less advantaged backgrounds. The kids visit your institution at the beginning and at the end of the seven-weeks course, write an essay (with proper marks!), and have a graduation. It’s hoped this experience encourages not only university applications particularly from those pupils who may not naturally think of that future, but also applications to highly selective universities like Cambridge and Oxford.

I thought that’s a great way to give back (without UK funding, I’d never have been able to do my Master’s or PhD). What goes around, comes around. It’s also an opportunity to spread the word about punctuation, I thought, and develop my own course. Brilliant Club offers teacher training which I am really keen on, too – and lo and behold, my students loved the engaging ideas I got from that week-end.

Developing the course beforehand was intense…I’ve taught school kids before, but it’s always hard to pitch the level. You basically design all in advance, a booklet, with images, tasks, texts, whatever you want to put in. If something ends up not working as you thought it would, there’s only so much alternative stuff to do about it. So a lot of thought goes into the planning, and a lot of work into mounting the natural obstacle of finding authorial editions (the ever-painful drudgery of a punctuation-detective). After the typical deadline flurry, though, I ended up being really proud of my handbook. You Have a Point: Punctuation in Literature.

Teaching happened between January and March. It’s an introductory session, followed by three full-on sessions, a recap, a one-to-one essay draft session, and a one-to-one essay feedback session (this year happening online of course).

I let the kids find out what punctuation is or could be in the first session, and then treated two marks per session with some pretty tough nuts as far as literature was concerned (Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and of course ee cummings). I tried to thread in hands-on essay-writing skills like writing a thesis statement, engaging with secondary criticism, and referencing. Their final assignment was an essay on an extract of On the Road.

I’ve just finished marking the essays; there was some really impressive work there. Apart from one  surprise (semicolon appreciation all around!) and one non-surprise (confusion between dash and hyphen – also all around), two main things crystallized which made me very happy indeed:

An awareness of the historical development of punctuation, all with addition of spaces, dots, and parentheses according to need and technological innovation. And an acute sense that the pupils displayed of how punctuation creates pace and captures or transmits emotion. My work is done here.

Oh, and of course, the beautiful typo in one essay: the scandalization of punctuation. I want to write thar eighteenth-century epistolary novel.

Splendid Isolation Book Two: Punctuation and Progress

As we continue social distancing from others and working at home in our pyjamas (welcome to the life of an academic), I’m continuing my punctuation book review with a handy little quarto by Norwegian media researcher Bard Bord Michalsen. Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History (2019) intrigued me for its provocative title. Apart from the inevitable whistle-stop tour through the history of punctuation, I hoped the book would explore both what it thinks civilization is, and how that is changed or not through such seemingly innocuous minuscule semantically meaningless marks like dots and dashes. I say the book, but it’s of course the author who fails to live up to expectations.

Signs of Civilisation

Of course, like all punctuation books for the general public (or indeed all books on the topic for whatever readership?), the author feels the need to both apologize for his quirky subject matter and convince that, yes, these random scatterings of ‘flyshit’ are actually worth giving attention  to (not my genius words on semicolons, alas, but Edward Abbey). I expected that. I expected a certain kind of bouncy breezy tone. But I didn’t expect the astonishingly superficial approach to “civilization”, that is, the lack of any approach at all.

Life is short and art is long, so a thorough unpacking of that most loaded of terms would be misplaced in such a book as this; yet one wishes at least some kind of acknowledgement, some nod, towards the complexity of the concept. Because of course, civilization (whatever that is) is desirable according to the book, and of course, that desirable civilization (whatever that is) is Western.

An ‘advanced punctuation system has been nothing less than one of the driving forces in the development of our entire western civilization.’ P.6

The Greeks didn’t have much punctuation to speak of, and were pretty advanced. So were the Arabs in Spain, or the Persians, whose languages, perhaps, have a grammar that simply doesn’t need punctuation to clarify. Perhaps our old English is just too weak, and in need of non-alphabetical little helpers. On Arabic punctuation, and grammatical parsing, I refer you to future posts. And anyway, can one not speak of a society as a civilization without writing? Can one please not speak about civilization at all?

While never stating as much, I think the book means to say that punctuation enables greater speed in reading (also, amongst others, via silent reading), and greater clarity of understanding, hence smoother communication overall. Smoother communication leads to better relationships over long distances, which leads to increased trade and economy, which encourages improvements in technology, which feeds back into communication making that faster and smoother.

And here I am, reading on and on, patiently asking myself when the author is going to speak about the messiness that characterises communication. Most of the time anyway. The unintended glitches, the deliberate obfuscations, ambitious ambiguities. Life and literature. The stuff that’s more interesting than law and order.

Essentially, the driving assumption of the book is nefarious and simply untrue Whiggish history: namely that we move towards improvement, and improvement is clarity, capitalism, light. is It calls punctuation ‘the icing on the cake’, providing the ‘finishing touch’ (p.6) to writing. That both means we have stopped innovating and speak like Shakespeare (which is when the author locates that fixing and icing), and it means punctuation is an afterthought of language, rather than a co-evolutionary phenomenon. It’s all just too neat and pretty.

The rest of the book is an innocent assembly of anecdotes (such as Kurt Vonnegut, describing the semi-colon as bisexual because it can’t decide it wants to belong to the light comma pause or the heavy colon).

The core tenet of Signs of Civilization is intriguing: take punctuation seriously. Take writing seriously. But it fails to deliver a thoughtful, (self-)critical exploration of its own terms that it cannot even find its way into introductory courses on the topic. Thus I turn to the magisterial David Crystal and his exquisite book on the topic.

Stop. Start Again.

One of the more straightforward tasks of punctuation is to clarify the boundaries between words and sentences in a written text. Visual cues are spaces between words, and marks, such as hyphens, commas, full stops. In contrast to scriptio continua of classical times, whenwordswouldbestrungtogetherwithoutsuchspacesorsigns, it was impossible to sight-read a text. So, punctuation helps us realize where one word ends, and another one starts. This makes relative sense. But what about speech?

How is it possible that, when we speak, we don’t have such signposts as punctuation marks or spaces telling us about word segments? Well, because we don’t need them. Even when someone speaks one word after another without change of tone and without pause between words or sentences at all, the hearer can still tell the difference between them.

Most of the time anyway. A notable exception being ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. Of course, even if the hearer did stumble across the two homophones the first time round, they’re likely to correct their mishearing through the context. And apart from that, recordings have in fact shown that there is a difference between the /ai/ sound of ‘ice’ and ‘I’. There is a greater emphasis on the verb, and a greater pause between pronoun and verb, and the equivalent sounds of the nice dessert.

The /ai/ of the pronoun is longer, and the verb is stressed.

So, although there’s plenty of potential for comedy in the flowing together of ‘might rain’ and ‘my train’ or ‘that’s tough’ and ‘that stuff’, and indeed ‘fork handle’ and ‘four candle’, we’re generally pretty adapt at “juncture”, the speech boundary where one word ends and another starts in continual talk. Tools of juncture can be minuscule pausing, changes of pitch, gesture. And probably also familiarity with words, and the language that contains them.

The same probably counts for music. I remember participating in an experiment about making sense of unfamiliar musical phrases when I was a student: you had to listen to music from China and India (if you were unfamiliar with that music), and push a button whenever you thought a musical phrase had ended. I have forgotten what the outcome was, and the purpose, but I distinctly remember the feeling of being completely lost, trying to listen for some kind of sense, or at least repetition of a sound I had already heard, but all my attempts at realizing the music’s structure dissolved in increasingly frantic pushing of buttons, and eventually giving up to befuddled confusion. I just couldn’t read that music.

So, what we do naturally, without ever thinking about it, and without seemingly spending much energy on, juncture that is, is quite extraordinary really.

Just like turn-taking, the bigger sister of juncture, as it were. That’s us taking turns in a conversation, the transition from me to you, and back to me.

Telling quite when somebody is (or rather will be) finished depends on gestures, facial expressions, gaze, grammatical cues, pitch, and (very much so) pauses. Those pauses, though, are incredibly short, and, amazingly, nearly universal in all kinds of languages. 200 milliseconds. That’s how long (short!) it takes to pick up the mantle of speech of someone else and make your own contribution. But because it takes three times the time to retrieve even a single word from memory, and get ready to say it, that’s 600 milliseconds, and some 1500 milliseconds to get a short clause onto our tongue, we by force need to prepare our answer while the other is speaking. Else conversations would take for ever.

This simultaneous comprehension and production of language does not mean not listening. It simply suggests how incredibly adept we are at talking, talking together, that is. Our brains are working hard to minimize the gap between conversational turns, trying to smooth that tricky transition period. There’s always something that can go wrong when we move from one state of being to another. Witness all those promising revolutions turning sour.

Transitions create a momentary vacuum into which something, someone, else can step, pulling the flow of what should be into what could be. Something else. Transitions are the vulnerable Achilles heel in the body of talk.

Perhaps, there is also opportunity in that gap. Someone can seize the word whose turn it wasn’t.

Interruptions might happen, regardless of pauses, effectively forcing a turn.

Overlap occurs when we wrongly predict, or when someone keeps talking although their cues suggested they wouldn’t.

Le Jeu royal de la paume, Charles Hulpeau, Paris: 1612.

There’s lots that can go (productively) wrong in turn-taking, but the overall bent remains: humans are good talkers, and we’re smooth-talkers, bouncing the tennis ball back and forth effortlessly, as Montaigne imagined 400 years ago.

And the role of punctuation in all of that? Well, since speech comes first, and writing is a representation of that (first and foremost, at least), punctuation imitates what we do without thinking about it. The spaces between words signalling their boundaries are the juncture, the rest of the marks indicate those things helping us take turns: question and exclamation mark symbolize a rise in pitch and final emphasis; comma, colon, and semi-colon create different kinds of light pauses after which there may be a turn, but the transition is iffy; a full stop is the big pause signalling a definite turn; a dash represents a rebel turn, an interruption.

I like the thought of punctuation being rebellious. It’s so much more than clarifying signposts, or self-effacing functional traffic lights managing the flow of words, the less visible the better. Punctuation, as much as junctures and turn-taking gaps, can also be stumbling blocks purposefully hindering speech. They show a red light, but push you over the crossroads anyway. And then you’re off to something way more interesting.

For how turn-taking plays out in drama, especially Shakespeare, check out the brand-new book by my friend and former colleague Dr Oliver Morgan.

Splendid Isolation

Like most of us, I haven’t been able to work much these past two weeks. The escalation of the current situation makes everything else small. So it’s been a bit of a drag to open a book, or even think of research. Not because I don’t like it, or don’t believe in it anymore, but because it’s what I’ve done before when we were still allowed to hug, see friends, travel, and thousands of people had not been dead. So, I find myself doing things that I usually not do, like stress-tidying or stress-binge-watching of series I watched as a teenager. Extraordinary behaviour for extraordinary times. Or is that an excuse?

After all, I’ve got three lively books on punctuation and typography which I’ve been eager to read for a while: Sarah Hyndman’s Why Fonts Matter.  Bard Borch Michalsen’s Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History, and David Crystal’s You Have a Point.

London, 2016.

I started with the beautiful Hyndman book which focusses on how typeface influences our behaviour and understanding of the world. It’s full of engaging little exercises like musing about what flavour certain typefaces taste like, or how advertisement communicates the “character” of its product through typeface. Hyndman’s blog is a treasure-trove of quirky information and exciting experiments on typography, emotion, cognition, and just generally anything text design.

I whole-heartedly recommend the book for its creativity and gorgeous looks. At times, I wished myself to see more depth in terms of just quite why typeface is so powerful, has affective agency, can cause indignation and discord. A supposedly invisible thing, a transparent vessel holding words which we consider the real deal. Just like punctuation. Typography and punctuation are both under-estimated subtleties of text.

Playful and happy-go-lucky Cocon, developed by Dutch designer Evert Bloemsman in 2001.

Unfortunately, although certainly not intended, the book makes clear just how sexist typography is, that is, our attitudes to it: the book is rich, a little too rich even, in tasks of attaching expectations to a certain typeface and then checking your answer against what others have said in pre-publication surveys. For example, what job would the person do judged on the typeface of their business card. Inevitably, the curvy flourishing typefaces such as Garamond italic evoke ideas of traditionally female jobs, such as fashion stylist, planning country club galas, nail painter, hostess, beautician, looking pretty, being an expert on love. No kidding. These were people’s answers, and honestly, my own were somewhere on that scale, too. Cocon was judged to be a baker, carer, dancer, ditzy receptionist, manicurist, or dog groomer.

Developed by the French Didot family between 1784-1811. Originally signalling reason, enlightenment, and neo-classical virtues, Didot now connotes style and fashion, having been adopted by magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Didot, the typeface most often called “feminine” by the book (or the people taking part in the survey’s on which it is based), had its fair share of hostess and hairdresser, but at least culled some more high-end jobs, too, like academic, magazine editor, and, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it good, ‘female CEO’.

Quintessentially English? London-born Clarendon, 1845, Besley and Fox.

This persistent sexist strain seriously dampened my enjoyment of the book. It’s as if typography was all surface and no depth – nothing wrong with surfaces per se, but…when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes we have acquired throughout life…well. The same mechanism of thinking Clarendon is serious and professional and Cocon suggests looks and well-being (again, nothing wrong with that, but but but) — that is the same mechanism of sexism: there is nothing biological, and nothing natural about any of this. It’s habit, and habit only. Or is it? Are there not studies that we connect round shapes to sounds like /o/ for which our mouth becomes round too? Witness the word “blob”. And zig-zaggy shapes “sound” sharp. The bouba and kiki effect. So, one imagines the line of connection goes “round letter shape means round body shape means woman”. It’s all a bit depressing.

I guess if I’m asking the book these questions, or typography rather, I have to ask myself questions of why I think surfaces are shallow are bad.

Eventually, things are more complicated, and, just like the many layers of human skin which communicate with each other, surface and depth are relational, and gradients on a spectrum, are themselves, and are yet intimately connected. When does surface end and depth start?

Apart from all of that, I was quite struck by the choice to put a full stop at the end of the book’s title, and in red no less. Why Fonts Matter. Same goes for the back of the cover— ‘(and why they are lots of fun.)’ – full stop this time in back, in order to distinguish it from the white letters and red background.

In stark contrast to that choice, there is not a single full stop where it’s grammatically required, that is, at the end of proper sentences, e.g. ‘A CIP catalogue record is available from the British Library’ in the flyleaf. All that publishing information in full sentences lacks a full stop. Weird.

Seeing that Hyndman is a designer, she will surely have wanted and had maximum authority over the entire looks of her book, I thought, so I’ve written to her and asked. She said the publishing house passed it onto designers who took the decisions, so I wrote to Penguin who said they’d ask. To be continued.

And now, onto the next book and the next week in isolation.

The ‘sensuall-lyfe’ of Punctuation: Hyphen Part 3

Since it’s early stages of my project, I am focussing on brackets in romance in prose, but eventually I’d like to cover brackets in all kinds of romance, prose, poetry, and drama. So, as preparation for that second stage (and because it’s fun), I called up two manuscripts of Harington’s Orlando Furioso translation. One, a beautifully-bound clean book in secretary hand, both by Harington himself and his scribe (Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 125.). One a manuscript by a private person, one Richard Newell who transcribed choice passages of the poem, putting them together with copies of letters and accounts (MS Malone 2).

The book is quite a big folio, and wrapped in smooth but ungainly vellum. A book of use. Around ten to thirteen pages at the front and back are written in mixed secretary-italic hand with a fairly thick nib, and still dark black ink. The letters on the one side, and the accounts on the other, are dated to 1623.

Sandwiched between these letters and accounts, however, the largest part of the manuscript, is a selections of Harington’s 1591 English translation of Ariosto’s 1532 Italian romance Orlando Furioso. At the beginning of the tidy, nearly faultless transcription in a fairly small, neat italic hand is the date, 1645, and even the months that the writer worked on it (January and February). The ink is quite fair, and/or strongly faded, making it hard to read sometimes.

Newell picks and chooses from across the work, usually focussing on sets of scenes, or descriptions, rarely single stanzas. Scenes will have titles for improved finding, and he is careful to include the stanza number, ensuring accessibility for the sake of comparison, or re-reading of the printed text. This was a conscientious transcriber.

There area marginal inscriptions, pointing to the Italian, or commenting (inevitably, on the racy action of certain kinds of merrymaking!). I didn’t yet compare this manuscript to printed versions of the work, which would be key in terms of discovering whether those notes are from Newell himself or copied from the printed text (or an intermediate manuscript?). This would also be key in relation to the bracket. There are quite a few in this copy, and they are always carefully opened and closed, much in comparison to an Arcadia MS at the Bodleian that I recently looked at that had orphaned bracket halves dangling alone all over the place (entry on this to come soon!).

That work is for later, though. What struck me most with this manuscript was the persistent hyphenation of adjective-noun-combinations. Not always, but constant enough to point to a habit, and perhaps one of rhyme and reason.

In the ‘Description of Aleyna’, her hair is compared to ‘wire of beaten-gold’. Is ‘beaten-gold’ different from ‘beaten gold’? Perhaps.

I thought that, maybe, adding a hyphen between adjective and following noun is just a personal quirk, a slip of the eye or the hand even. But Newell is too thorough, and the phenomenon is too consistent to be accidental. On the other hand, it’s not always the case. Aleyna’s description continues:

Her lovely-Cheekes with shew of modest shame With roses and with Lillies painted are’.

Why ‘lovely-Cheekes’ and not ‘modest-shame’? Perhaps cheeks can only be lovely, while there are different kinds of shame. Or is this proof Newell’s hyphens are, well, not that deliberate after all?

I’d have to really look through the entire copy in order to assess that with more grounding in numbers of incidents. As it is, though, only because each and every case has not yet been judged, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Because it is. There. ‘Lovely-Cheekes’.  

My particular favourite comes in the description of two lovers, sporting a carefree life devoted to such very naughty things as hunting and frequent changing of clothes. And, of course, kissing in a way that makes it impossible to tell which tongue belongs to whom. We call that the French way.

In short: they lead a truly ‘sensuall-lyfe’.

See line 5.

Wrapped in each other, tongues twisting in French kiss, the hyphen makes their physical bonding visible. The distinction between adjective modifying noun disappear; the discrete boundaries between bodies do. It’s all one thing, the platonic whole, hyphenated sex. Sensuall-lyfe.

Bracket Spotting

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend via text, trying to find a day to take a walk together, and touch base. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, although we live in the same town (entirely my fault!). Sunday, I said to her, would be best, as on all the other days of the week I “had to work in the library, looking at manuscripts”. She, ever the scholar, replied thus:

had to –> get to <3

She’s right of course. What a great privilege to play with old books! I’m currently looking at MS e.Mus.37, a copy of the Old Arcadia, not Feuillerat’s base text. Luckily not, since this one’s hardly got any brackets at all.

Poring over the beautiful secretary hand, I tried to spot the bracket. An early modern where is Waldo. Progress was slow, and the work draining. I wondered why, and then suddenly realized that the habits, that is, the script, of secretary hand makes it hard for the eye to tell when exactly the inky curves are parts of letters and when not.

Mostly, what tripped me up by posing like half a bracket is the form of the ampersand with a belly curving to the left, like so:

(This photo is from MS Jesus 150 in the Bodleian Library.)

Then the ascending hook of the spurred ‘a’, a slightly old-fashioned form, indicating that the scribe must have learnt to write in the middle of the sixteenth-century, rather than towards its end.

The infralinear lobes of ‘h’, ‘g’, and ‘y’ also routinely make me look twice, biting into the lines below them as they do.

Notice the ‘g’ of ‘grew’ on the top line, and ‘h’ of ‘hew’ below.
Notice the ‘y’ of ‘my’ on the top line, and ‘sely’ just below.

Sometimes the bracket is incredibly thin, like an eye-lash having floated onto the page, or a slender piece of fibre having swum to the surface of the paper during its production. This is owing to the angle of the quill’s nib, which could scratch the paper, and not release as much ink.

And sometimes, brackets were plainly, and simply forgotten. In this particular manuscript, there are orphaned brackets a-plenty, suggesting either a certain carelessness in copying, or haste, or lack of attention. Presumably, the first is the case, since there are not many brackets at all in this Arcadia copy (though that might be owing to its copy-text). Perhaps, an already bracket-weak text, then, was further de-bracketted by the cavalier attitude towards brackets by the scribe of e.Mus.37, resulting in a handsome and clean, but very lightly punctuated piece.

The question remains whether we should consider punctuation, and the bracket as most visible sign, most squarely present, whether we should think of it as accidental and thus negligible in terms of editing and interpreting, or whether we should give attention to what seems part of the minutiae of the work, what seems, and maybe is, vulnerable to change upon transmission. Part of my project also means doing exactly that, making a case for taking those small not-so-small elements of a text like punctuation seriously. Especially when it’s systematic. Especially when in- and exclusion might tell us something about the line of origin of manuscripts.

Punctuation does make a difference. Like Harold Pinter says, ‘you can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot form a dash a mile off.’ And the readers, too.

The Early Modern What-d’ye-call-it Hyphen, Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how we are using fewer and fewer hyphens these days. But going back in time does not mean returning to a hyphenated (literary) world either! Lately, I was playing around with some Renaissance manuscripts in the Bodleian library in Oxford, and discovered some curious punctuation habits (including hyphenation) by one prolific commonplace book keeper, called William Sancroft, some time archbishop of Canterbury (between 1678 and 1690).

MS Sancroft 29 is one of his commonplace books in which he excerpts literary quotations for a variety of issues and situations (such as ‘Angry and Waspish’, or ‘Lust’).

The length of quotation varies, ranging from just one line to several. How far Sancroft preserves the original quotation also depends. Since he’s excerpting for use, he’s happy to change the pieces a bit, especially the grammar, changing pronouns, and syntax, so that it becomes a little hard to find the source text through EEBO. Most of Sancroft 29 are dramatic extracts, most from Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays. Only rarely does Sancroft record in the margin where the quotations are from, which makes for some exciting detective work.

A rare recording of the excerpts’ origins, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, unfortunately upside down.

As I familiarized myself with the volume, I realized that Sancroft is careful about punctuation, using the whole array at his disposal, ranging from question and exclamation marks to brackets, dashes, apostrophes, commas, colons, semi-colons, and, yes, hyphens, too. I was curious whether Sancroft copied the original punctuation (presumably from their printed sources), or whether he changed it according to his own needs and habits. And the latter is what he did.

I stumbled across a proliferation of hyphens, and started to track down their sources. Here’s one from As You Like It, Act II, scene iv, where the two Arden shepherds Silvius and Corin are arguing about love, and how the elderly Corin cannot understand young Silvius’ pains for unrequited passion for Phoebe.

Sil. No Corin, being old, thou canst not guesse,

Though in thy youth thou wast as true a louer

As euer sigh’d vpon a midnight pillow:

I checked the spelling of all three first folios, and the word remain two. But Sancroft writes this:

See top line.

As true a lover, as ever sigh’d upon a midnight-pillow

The lines before and after are from different plays; unsuccessful in most attempts to discover the sources, I quickly gave up, and focussed on the juicy punctuation bits.

Sancroft has at least two more instances of adding hyphens between compound words, including ‘parish-church’, and ‘wits-pedlar’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The most delightful example, though, remains the outsized ‘Dort-what-d’ye-call’ from an unidentified play.

See line 5 from the bottom up.

 This is a lovely example of hyper-hyphenation which I unfortunately cannot read very well…Dort? I don’t know. Always the sixteenth-century secretary-hand-er. Italic is just too young for me! I particularly love this example, though. It feels so modern. Like when we say ‘what’s-his-name’.

In my previous post, I briefly spoke about the difference that this little horizontal line between two words makes: it links them in a little visual and cognitive burst in a way that a blank space simply can’t. There’s some crucial reason why two particular words are being connected like that, and it’s up to us to find that out. It’s not just a pillow, but a pillow for sleeplessness, but not just that, it’s for that particular insomnia coming in the middle of the night, when it’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow, and we’re locked in the fuzzy transitional zone of ambiguity. That’s when we lie on that pillow, that midnight-pillow. The hyphen makes a metaphor legible.

Sancroft, in his punctuation choices, intuits meaning, and increases its perceptible nature by adding that little belt of a hyphen. Of course, Shakespeare might have included a hyphen in his manuscript, and the lack of it is a personal choice of the type-setter’s taste, or the practicalities of printing. Of course, Sancroft might not have worked from the folios. But he can’t have used the quartos, at least not for As You Like It, because none existed. He might have worked from manuscript texts with their own punctuation, borrowed them from someone else, and just copied that, but one assumes he worked from the printed texts, since he did bequeath his enormous book collection of 6.000 volumes to Emmanuel’s College, Cambridge. And in any case, Sancroft was quite cavalier with the “correctness” of the original quotations, re-jigging words as he pleased, so why painstakingly keep the punctuation from someone else for something he was going to change anyway?

No, Bishop Sancroft chose to add hyphens, and although it might seem a small matter, it’s actually a big one: adding punctuation is not incidental, and not accidental. It’s a statement. It’s appropriating a text, words, some else’s words, and doing something to those words, and those meanings. Adding punctuation is literary criticism right there.

For more on the Sancroft manuscripts, see Laura Estill, Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century Manuscripts (Lanham, 2015).

Hyphen Confusion (or should that be ‘Hyphen-Confusion’?)

Note the ‘=’ sign commonly used as hyphen in the early modern period. (Pudsey commonplace book, ca 1600, Bodleian Library).

Recently, our old neglected friend the hyphen has made a brief re-appearance (oh, there it goes again!) in the BBC news about Labour party leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey, also known as Long Bailey. She doesn’t care.

Double-barelled names are becoming more and more current as society gets used to women not changing their last names upon getting married, but double-barelling it with their husband’s (sometimes, rarely, joined by those very husbands!), or passing their maiden name on to their double-barelled children. Not even speaking of all those other kinds of non-heterosexual non-married unions that, thankfully, are possible today. For the record, double-barelled names are the norm in Iberian cultures. It’s all got to do with the level of importance families have, and advances in gender equality. Or should that be gender-equality?

And here be the crux: rules for hyphenation are pretty loose. Of course, some rules make a lot of sense in the name of avoiding confusion, homographic and otherwise, such as ‘un-ionized’ and ‘unionized’. I also love ‘man-eating shark’ and ‘man eating shark’. It also makes sense to avoid the ungainly looks of vowel clash (‘anti-inflammatory’, as opposed to ‘anti inflammatory’, or even worse ‘antiinflammatory’). I once saw someone write ‘no-one’ and never looked back.

Apart from the prefix- and disambiguation-use of the hyphen (and the floating hyphen that just occurred), hyphenation is pretty much a matter of personal choice. New words tend to be hyphenated until people get used to them: think of us 90s kids laboriously typing out ‘e hyphen mail’ before we became stressed adults hardly having time to write ’email’. More than habituation, it’s the increase, speed, and informality of digital communication which are ringing the death knell to the humble but crucial hyphen. Nobody (make that ‘no-one’) has time for that little parallel line anymore, and so, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of 2007 has kicked out hyphenation of a whopping 16.000 words, including such gems as ‘pot-belly’. ‘Pot belly’ is just not the same!

And truly, it is not the same.

Hyphens are ambivalent creatures: they separate – and they connect.

They help us see through the thicket of words precisely by disconnecting the connection, and at the same time, they connect what’s previously been disconnected.

Punctuation status: it’s complicated.

So, if the hyphen highlights simultaneous (dis)connection, then, one imagines, it makes a lot of difference if nouns like ‘pot-belly’ or ‘ice-cap’ have an actual umbilical cord, a visual rope that ties them together. A wedding-ring as it were.

A hyphen is the simile of punctuation marks. It establishes a sudden, unexpected link, a levelness, balancing this against that. This is like that, and that is like this. Both terms still remain discreet. A simile is not a metaphor, merging, as it does, two original terms in mysterious ways.

A hyphen is just that, a double-barelled name that tells you that this child came from these two people. On second thoughts, hyphens aren’t even similes, they’re the bringers of real equality. There’s no comparison implied. There’s no directionality, object A being seen in terms of object B. Both words before and after the hyphen, no matter how long or short they are, no matter if they’re Latinate, or Germanic, or even as small asthe ‘in’ of the ‘mother-in-law’ — hyphens establish and maintain equality. Any words, all words, just…connect.

And doesn’t Sidney say compounding is the beauty mark of any language? Let’s keep compounding with that little unassuming line hovering in the horizon. Unassuming, but adamant. Here to stay.

For the history of the hyphen, check out Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Interesting starting points for more research could be: linguistic/cognitive science studies on the hyphen slowing down the speed of reading, and the implications of that for readers of different ages and visual abilities, as has been done a couple of times in the community. But that’s for another post.

Remember the Porter! Or the bracket on the 5th of November

I’ve been teaching Volpone today, and, in my preparation for the seminar, discovered the wonderful British Library pages on early modern drama and dramatists. They also showed an autograph letter of Jonson to Robert Cecil, James’ secretary of state, and secret service guy, written just days after the revelation of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On 5 November 414 years ago, that is.

In the letter, Jonson, vehemently expresses his loyalty to his country (implying the king), and informs Cecil that he was unable to find the person the latter asked him to look for, namely a certain priest who, it was hoped, would be able to question the imprisoned Guy Fawkes, silent about his accomplices until then. Pre-torture, one assumes.

Jonson, being Catholic at the time, was naturally under suspicion of complicity, and it certainly didn’t help that he frequented pubs and places accompanied by one of the masterminds behind the plot, Robert Catesby. It’s not sure whether Jonson truly was involved, or whether his connection a mere circumstance of the relatively overseeable community of Catholics at the time, or, indeed, whether he was a spy for the other, the official, side. In any case, there’s a letter, and it’s in his handwriting, and I feel touched to see it.

As I was reading it, I realized my eyes naturally looked for punctuation marks, particularly parentheses, of course. And I found five which may tell us some interesting things about their early modern use. What a perfect way of linking all those concerns of the day together, brackets, bombs, and Ben.

Transcript (from the BL page)

My most honorable Lord. /

May it please yo[u]r Lo[rdship] to understand, there hath bene no want

in mee, eyther of labor or sincerity in the discharge of this busines,

to the satisfaction of yo[u]r Lo[rdship] and the state. And wheras, yesterday,

upon the first Mention of it, I tooke the most ready Course (to my

present thought) by the Venetian Ambassadors Chaplin, who not

only apprehended it well, but was of mind w[i]th mee, that no Man of

Conscience, or any indifferent Love to his Countrey would deny to

doe it; and w[i]thall engaged himselfe to find out one, absolute in all

Numbers, for the purpose; w[hi]ch he will’d me (before a Gent[leman] of

good Credit, who is my Testemony) to signifie to yo[u]r Lo[rdship] in his

Name: It falls out since, that that Party will not be found,

(for soe he returnes answere.) upon w[hi]ch I have made attempt

in other Places, but can speake w[i]th no one in Person (all being

eyther remov’d or so conceal’d; upon this present Mischeife) but

by second Meanes, I have receav’d answere of doubts, and

difficulties, that they ^ will make it a Question to the Archpriest, w[i]th

other such like suspensions: So that to tell yo[u]r Lo[rdship] playnly

my heart, I thinke they are All so enwean’d in it, as it will

make 500 Gent[lemen] less of the Religion w[i]thin this weeke, if

they carry theyr understanding about them. For my selfe,

if I had bene a Preist, I would have put on wings to such

an Occasion, and have thought it no adventure, where I

might have done (besides his Maiesty, and my Countrey) all

Christianity so good service. And so much I have sent to

some of them./

If it shall please yo[u]r Lordsh[ip] I shall yet make

farder triall, and that you cannot in the meane time be pro=

vided: I do not only w[i]th all readynesse offer my service, but will

p[er]forme it w[i]th as much integrity, as yo[u]r particular Favor,

or his Maiesties Right in any subiect he hath, can exalt.

Yo[u]r Ho[nour] most perfect

servant and Lover

Ben[jamin] Jonson.

8 November 1605

This is a letter for presentation. The hand is regular and elegant, except for the little insertion, there are no after-thoughts, no mistakes. The brackets, too, must be on purpose.

Jonson carefully structures his letter, moving from an introductory assurance of having done all he could to fulfil Cecil’s request to an explanation of his steps of action, that is, seeing the Venician ambassador to ask advice on which priest to approach, the ambassador being unable to find anyone suitable, Jonson asking around other places, again to no avail, a suggestion he did receive certain answers but not conclusive ones, an impassioned plea of his loyalty to crown and country, and a promise to try again.

The good news we learn from this letter: Jonson is really supportive of the powers that be. The bad news: he didn’t manage to do what those powers had asked him to do, that is, find a guy to cross-examine Fawkes. Jonson couches his admission to this failure in three relatively substantial parantheses, crowding together within the space of 60 odd words.

The parentheses bear adjustments, qualifications, and clarifications to what he’s saying in the “official” lines; they help carry the bad news, but are supposed to help protect the messenger. You can’t be straightforward when talking to the secretary of state! So, it makes sense Jonson is hedging information on his failure between all those visual walls, making the sentence flow stop and start. Every clause expressing a new piece of information is clearly delineated through the brackets, segregating them into discrete chunks which the eye reads one by one. It slows the whole process down, and (I believe) makes the reader linger on, and process through, all the steps that Jonson went through to fulfil his duty, albeit without success.

I’ve got more to say yet about the difference in pace of the passages with and without brackets, but I want to delve in a bit more, and consider their local effect one by one.

Number 1: ‘And wheras, yesterday, upon the first Mention of it, I tooke the most ready Course (to mypresent thought) by the Venetian Ambassadors Chaplin, who not only apprehended it well, but was of mind w[i]th mee’

Jonson tells us, carefully, anxiously, that to him it seemed best to address himself to the ambassador as first port of call. Jonson must have been familiar enough with the ambassador to seek his help, that is, the help of his Chaplin (thanks for this hint to James Loxley!)

In any case, Jonson wants to make clear that he did what seemed most appropriate to him without arrogating to himself the right to decide, and take action – that’s Cecil’s. The bracket makes clear, though, that Jonson does take responsibility. It’s his thought. His action. Then, after having talked to the ambassador, Jonson’s thought becomes official line, and doesn’t require a carefully qualifying bracket anymore. They were ‘of mind’. They think the same. The bracket, in this instance, signals pre-emption of criticism, and possession, his ‘present thought’. It also signals time. Going to the ambassador was a thought from then. Now, Jonson might think differently. But there you go: in the present, then, it seemed to make sense.

Brackets 2, 3, and 4 come as a triplet:

‘and w[i]thall engaged himselfe to find out one, absolute in all Numbers, for the purpose; w[hi]ch he will’d me (before a Gent[leman] of good Credit, who is my Testemony) to signifie to yo[u]r Lo[rdship] in his Name: It falls out since, that that Party will not be found, (for soe he returnes answere.) upon w[hi]ch I have made attempt in other Places, but can speake w[i]th no one in Person (all being eyther remov’d or so conceal’d; upon this present Mischeife) but by second Meanes, I have receav’d answere of doubts, and difficulties, that they ^ will make it a Question to the Archpriest, w[i]th other such like suspensions’

The brackets thick and fast manage the reading flow, and alleviate the gravity of the news, that Jonson was unable to fulfil the thing he was asked to fulfil.

Bracket 2 cuts the sentence into two sub-clauses, introducing an actual break, a physical distance between Jonson (‘me’), and Cecil (‘yo[u]r Lo[rdship]’). It’s clear who is the person in power here. Also, the unnamed person testifying for Jonson is mentioned in passing, in a parenthesis, because he’s exactly that, unnamed, and slightly adjunct to the whole story as it is, but yet important enough to be mentioned, to add to the jigsaw of careful rendition of Jonson’s careful attempt to provide.

The third bracket tries to re-inforce the impression that Jonson did make an attempt to find a priest, but that that attempt has failed partly because of someone else: ‘he returnes answer’. He, not Jonson. He returns, Jonson merely receives.  

The fourth bracket explains, yet again, why Jonson’s mission was fruitless (Catholics lie low at the moment). Time again enters the parenthesis, insisting that the ‘Mischief’ is now, these days, these confusing dangerous days.

Then, an impassioned plea: ‘So that to tell yo[u]r Lo[rdship] plainly my heart’ – and here follows tens and tens of words on Jonson’s loyalty, an honest outpouring of truth that needs no interrupting, hedging brackets. It’s Jonson, the lack of brackets suggests, earnest, naked, promising to keep doing his best. It’s the future, not the now. The future is clear and simple.

I’m not yet sure what to make of all this, but it was fun and illuminating to explore. I’m reading lots about punctuation at the moment, so it’s a relief to look at it in action, too. And such exciting action at that, words and history and all.

2 November 2019: Craving Good News

I went to see Crave by Sarah Kane on Halloween. It’s one of her less violent ones, at least visually so. Emotionally-speaking, it’s tough, of course: four people talking at cross-purposes for 50 minutes, topics ranging from paedophilia, suicide, loneliness, loss, abandonment, and whatever else life throws at people in general, and people at each other.

The stage was a black square two sides of which were clad in transparent foil, the one you use for painting the walls. The actors ripped these apart at the end, just before moving towards the open door whose light enticed them away from the stage of their pain.

To be honest, I understood much too little of the reasons for this or that choice, production-wise, composition-wise…but perhaps it’s enough just to be there and watch, listen, co-suffer.

Studies have found that people around the world are more engaged by bad than good news. Scientists measured heart rate and skin conductance when playing good and bad news clips to an international group of people, and discovered that there is a greater physiological arousal response when the news is bad. They don’t explain this “negativity bias”, but there you go, we’re turned on by disaster. Tragedy, yet again.

It’s curious, though, that this bias is biological, irrespective of culture or language. Tragedy wired in our genes.

It’s also curious that the physiological response does not increase with an increase of bad news. We can only take so much it seems. So your CNN and BBC might as well mix in more good news than they currently do. We’ll keep watching, keep consuming. Keep activating.

In the play, all characters, all four of them, craved love before anything, actually; love from each other, their parents, self-love, as in self-esteem. Even Kane’s bleakest plays always have their protagonists show or want love, even if only a sliver of it, somewhere amid all that chopping off of limbs à la Titus Andronicus.

Redemption, and the impossibility of total waste.