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 ...

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.