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“Punctuation, is? fun!”*…


The average tweet is not an especially remarkable thing. It can contain letters (and almost always does), marks of punctuation (perhaps more of an acquired taste in this context), and pictures (mostly of cats and/or the photographer themselves). But in amongst these most conventional components of modern written communication are two special symbols around which orbits the whole edifice of Twitter. Neither letters nor marks of punctuation, the @- and #-symbols scattered throughout Twitter’s half billion daily messages are integral to its workings. And yet, they have always been interlopers amongst our written words.

Both ‘@’ and ‘#’ first crept into view during the Renaissance…

Old friend Keith Houston provides “A brief history of the # and the @.”

* Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon


As we hit the shift key, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that Time Magazine acquired The Literary Digest— or its one remaining asset of value, its mailing list.  Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, then published by his company, Funk & Wagnalls, The Literary Digest was an influential general interest publication the grew in influence (its circulation topped 1 million) with it election polling.  Starting in 1920, it conducted straw polls, all accurately predicting the outcomes of presidential elections…  until 1936, when its poll called the race a likely landslide victory for Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas.  In the event, of course, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was re-elected by a landslide– a result accurately predicted by a start-up polling company, George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion.



“I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now'”*…


What’s a novel without its words? Just punctuation. But when you take those lines of commas, periods, exclamation points, and quotes, then arrange them in a big spiral, you can still tell something of the character of the original work: the endlessly curious and expository quality of Ishmael’s narrative in Moby Dick, for example, or the titular wonder of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Between the Words by Chicago-based designer Nicholas Rougeux is a series of posters that takes the text of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, The Time Machine, and more, then strips them of all their words until they are mere swirling vortices of punctuation. The project was inspired by Stefanie Posavec’s Writing without Words data visualizations, which colorfully chart the structure—but not the actual prose—of many classic novels…

See the charted novels in larger, zoomable form at “Between the Words“; more background at “8 Classic Novels Reduced To Their Punctuation.”

* Ursula K. Le Guin


As we eat shoots and leaves, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Barbara Wertheim Tuchman; she was born on this date in 1912.  A historian, Tuchman wrote two books (The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China) that won Pulitzer Prizes, and several others that could/probably should have: e.g., The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.)


“Punctuation is a deeply conservative club. It hardly ever admits a new member”*…


The earliest writing existed at a time when the spoken word was king; texts were created without spaces or punctuation marks.  It infuriated Greek playwright (and librarian) Aristophanes, who began what the Keith Houston calls the “punctuational big bang.”

Aristophanes created a system where people could add dots to lines of text to signify pauses. A dot in the middle (·) signified the shortest pause, called the comma. For an intermediate pause, known as the colon, the dot was at the bottom (.), and the period was the longest pause, represented with a dot at the top of the line.  Aristophanes’s system evolved over the years—the colon got an extra dot, the period dropped to the bottom of the line, and the comma got a curve and dropped to the bottom of the line—but it’s remarkable how much has stuck around…

And it’s remarkable why (spoiler alert, it has to do with the printing press, and the standardization that it brought… though new tech in general and emoticons in particular are shaking things up again).

From the ellipsis to the exclamation point, “The origins of punctuation marks.”

(Word usage continues to evolve as well…)

* Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen


As we come to a full stop, we might send dark, but elegantly-punctuated birthday greetings to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, or as he’s better known to English readers, Joesph Conrad; he was born on this date in 1857. An early modernist who spoke and wrote in three languages (his native Polish, French, and English), he imported a non-English diction and tragic sense to his work, which included Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, 17 other novels, and dozens of short stories.  A success in his own time, Conrad’s influence grew; he’s been cited as a formative influence on writers including D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, J. G. Ballard, John le Carré, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Hunter S. Thompson, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie… and of course, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.


Written by LW

December 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken”*…


The Oxford comma, so-called because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it, is the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. If your preferred style is to omit the second comma in “red, white, and blue,” you are aligned with the anti-Oxford comma faction.The pro-Oxford comma faction is more vocal and numerous in the US, while in the UK, anti-Oxford comma reigns. (Oxford University is an outsider, style-wise, in its own land.) In the US, book and magazine publishers are generally pro, while newspapers are anti, but both styles can be found in both media.

The two main rationales for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor. Here are some quotes that have served as shots exchanged in the Oxford comma wars…

Pro: “…use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost.”

Wilson Follett, in his 1966 Modern American Usage, advocates for the comma on the grounds that it can’t really hurt.

Con: “All those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.”

This complaint was addressed to Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, by James Thurber, who preferred “the red white and blue” to “the red, white, and blue.” Ross, a notorious defender of the serial comma, was impressed by Thurber’s argument and responded, “write a piece about it, and I’ll punctuate the flag any way you want it—in that one piece.”

Pro: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

A probably apocryphal book dedication, this example has been a favorite of pro-Oxford comma language blogs for a while. Without the comma before “and,” you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

Con: “The English are rather more careful than we are, and commonly put a comma after the next-to-last member of a series, but otherwise are not too precise to offend a red-blooded American.”

H.L. Mencken, who did not use the serial comma himself, implies, in this quote tucked into a supplement to The American Language, that there is something prissy, pedantic, and altogether un-American about the extra comma…

More fuel for the fire in Arika Okrent’s “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.”

*  Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation


As we choose sides, we might spare a thought for a regular user of the clarifying comma, Edmund Burke; he died on this date in 1797.  Born in Dublin, he was an author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.  He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions.  While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire:  Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.

“You can never plan the future by the past.”

-Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791)

“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”.

– Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds



Written by LW

July 9, 2014 at 1:01 am

In praise of punctiliousness…

On August 10 the website of the Athens [Georgia] Banner-Herald ran the headline “Man asked to clean up after dog pulls gun.”

It has subsequently been changed.

Via World Wide Words, where editor Michael Quinion also quotes from an article in The Independent on 12 August about the Australian general election: “On the campaign trail and addressing a Liberal Party event in the city of Melbourne [opposition leader Tony] Abbott said: ‘No one — however smart, however well-educated, however experienced — is the suppository of all wisdom’.”

Indeed.  (And lest one think there’s little at stake, this.)

[image above, via Nora Wilkinson]


As we disagree with Vampire Weekend, we might send addled birthday greetings to an empress of ellipses and exclamation points, Jacqueline Susann; she was born on this date in 1921.  Having been disappointed by her luck as an actress and a model, Ms. Susann turned to the typewriter.  Her first novel, Every Night, Josephine (featuring her poodle), was a best-seller.  Her second, Valley of the Dolls was the best-seller:  it topped the chart for 22 weeks, and by the time of Susann’s death in 1974, had sold over 17 million copies, making it the best-selling novel of all time.  Its current cumulative sales of 30 million puts it in a dead heat with Gone With the Wind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and To Kill a Mockingbird).


Written by LW

August 20, 2013 at 1:01 am

“I’m tired of wasting letters when punctuation will do, period.”*…

 source: Flickr/Tom Magliery.

I’ve noticed that I use semicolons a lot. That punctuational rut is partly a consequence of the years I spent in grad school reading the Victorian Sages (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris), who were capable of raging on in pages-long, semicolon-studded sentences about the evils of the Industrial Revolution. But there’s more to it than that. The semicolon is my psychological metaphor, my mascot. It’s the punctuation mark that qualifies, hesitates, and ties together ideas and parts of a life that shot off in different directions. I come from a world where most people still don’t read or hear what I have to say about books because they are oblivious to or downright suspicious of NPR, The New York Times, and all the other educated, upper-middle-class outlets where popular conversations about literature and culture take place; I now spend most of my time in a world where most people know who Stanley Fish is but have only the haziest notion of (and are even less interest in) what a shop steward does.

– Author, professor, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan

[To T. E. Lawrence, on Seven Pillars of Wisdom:] You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.

– George Bernard Shaw

More lexicographical love at “Writers’ Favorite Punctuation Marks.”

Feeling syntactically savvy?  Take the Obscure Punctuation Quiz

* “I’m tired of wasting letters when punctuation will do, period.” – Steve Martin


As we pledge ourselves to punctiliousness, we might spare a thought for Sarah Winnemucca; she died on this date in 1891 (as attested here, though some other sources give October 17).  The daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute people, and originally known by her Paiute name, Thocmetony (Shell Flower), Sarah was educated in the homes of U.S. Army officers who befriended her family.  She became a prominent Native American activist and educator, and was the first Native American woman to secure a copyright and to publish in the English language (an autobiographical book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, that tells of her people’s experiences during their first forty years of contact with white explorers and settlers– and that employs the full range of punctuation marks).


Written by LW

October 14, 2012 at 1:04 am

“They still believe in God, the family, angels, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other obsolete stuff”*…

Exclamation Comma

“Just because you’re excited about something doesn’t mean you have to end the sentence”

The Interrobang, the Asterism, and a dozen other curious connectors at BuzzFeed’s “14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed.”

* Isaac Bashevis Singer


As we resist coming to a full stop, we might send silent birthday wishes to Adolph (later Arthur) “Harpo” Marx; he was born on this date in 1888.  Harpo’s signature style, he recalls in his autobiography, was born after reading a review of one of the earliest performances he did with his brothers; it read, in part: “Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke.”  Thereafter, of course, it was all whistles and horns…

And mallets:  Harpo was inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979.



Written by LW

November 23, 2011 at 1:01 am

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