Books by Houston, Keith

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. ISBN 978-0-393-06442-1.
The earliest written languages seem mostly to have been mnemonic tools for recording and reciting spoken text. As such, they had little need for punctuation and many managed to get along withoutevenspacesbetweenwords. If you read it out loud, it's pretty easy to sound out (although words written without spaces can be used to create deliciously ambiguous text). As the written language evolved to encompass scholarly and sacred texts, commentaries upon other texts, fiction, drama, and law, the structural complexity of the text grew apace, and it became increasingly difficult to express this in words alone. Punctuation was born.

In the third century B.C. Aristophanes of Byzantium (not to be confused with the other fellow), librarian at Alexandria, invented a system of dots to denote logical breaks in Greek texts of classical rhetoric, which were placed after units called the komma, kolon, and periodos. In a different graphical form, they are with us still.

Until the introduction of movable type printing in Europe in the 15th century, books were hand-copied by scribes, each of whom was free, within the constraints of their institutions, to innovate in the presentation of the texts they copied. In the interest of conserving rare and expensive writing materials such as papyrus and parchment, abbreviations came into common use. The humble ampersand (the derivation of whose English name is delightfully presented here) dates to the shorthand invented by Cicero's personal secretary/slave Tiro, who invented a mark to quickly write “et” as his master spoke.

Other punctuation marks co-evolved with textual criticism: quotation marks allowed writers to distinguish text from other sources included within their works, and asterisks, daggers, and other symbols were introduced to denote commentary upon text. Once bound books (codices) printed with wide margins became common, readers would annotate them as they read, often pointing out key passages. Even a symbol as with-it as the now-ubiquitous “@” (which I recall around 1997 being called “the Internet logo”) is documented as having been used in 1536 as an abbreviation for amphorae of wine. And the ever-more-trending symbol prefixing #hashtags? Isaac Newton used it in the 17th century, and the story of how it came to be called an “octothorpe” is worthy of modern myth.

This is much more than a history of obscure punctuation. It traces how we communicate in writing over the millennia, and how technologies such as movable type printing, mechanical type composition, typewriting, phototypesetting, and computer text composition have both enriched and impoverished our written language. Impoverished? Indeed—I compose this on a computer able to display in excess of 64,000 characters from the written languages used by most people since the dawn of civilisation. And yet, thanks to the poisonous legacy of the typewriter, only a few people seem to be aware of the distinction, known to everybody setting type in the 19th century, among the em-dash—used to set off a phrase; the en-dash, denoting “to” in constructions like “1914–1918”; the hyphen, separating compound words such as “anarcho-libertarian” or words split at the end of a line; the minus sign, as in −4.221; and the figure dash, with the same width as numbers in a font where all numbers have the same width, which permits setting tables of numbers separated by dashes in even columns. People who appreciate typography and use TeX are acutely aware of this and grind their teeth when reading documents produced by demotic software tools such as Microsoft Word or reading postings on the Web which, although they could be so much better, would have made Mencken storm the Linotype floor of the Sunpapers had any of his writing been so poorly set.

Pilcrows, octothorpes, interrobangs, manicules, and the centuries-long quest for a typographical mark for irony (Like, we really need that¡)—this is a pure typographical delight: enjoy!

In the Kindle edition end of chapter notes are bidirectionally linked (albeit with inconsistent and duplicate reference marks), but end notes are not linked to their references in the text—you must manually flip to the notes and find the number. The end notes contain many references to Web URLs, but these are not active links, just text: to follow them you must copy and paste them into a browser address bar. The index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text. There is no way to distinguish examples of typographic symbols which are set in red type from chapter note reference links set in an identical red font.

October 2013 Permalink