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.

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 ...

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.