Polysyllabic Sesquipedalianisms (and other annoyances)

These subtle but prized typographic conventions find themselves under threat from the wretched “hyphen-minus,” an interloper introduced to the dash’s delicate habitat in the late nineteenth century. Too crowded to accommodate the typewriter keyboard required a compromise; the jack-of-all-trades hyphen-minus was the result, and its privileged position at the fingertips of typists everywhere has led to it impersonating dashes and hyphens alike with alarming frequency. In print and online, the well-set dash is an endangered species (146).
~ Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks

IMG_2591Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters is a sheer guilty pleasure of a read. I know people get very precious about their punctuation, but I am not one of them. I am far too flawed to get caught up judging others by their adherence or lack-thereof in regard to an elusive ideal of punctuation. Particularly as such a thing, of course, does not exists. Yes, we have meandering conventions (that differ by country). And, largely thanks to the printing press and the limitations of the keyboard, there is some agreement now-a-days, but as Houston’s romp through the history of punctuation attests, it has not always been thus.

We can lament the hyphen-minus, but for most, just getting to the em dash (shift/option/hyphen on a mac) is asking a lot. One would have to have been berated by a passionate letterpress professor to make the effort. And I have. So I (mostly. often enough) do. But do I care if others properly use an en, or em dash without mixing it up with a hyphen or, heaven forfend, a hyphen-minus? When all is said and done, it is an aesthetic visual experience to read…after a while one feels sorry for the pedant and annoying grammaphiles that sniffily insist there is only one “right” way to do things. After all, before the age of the printing press, and long after, people just winged it. Sure, there were attempts to codify, but really, when it comes to reading one always has to adjust to a writer’s style and, flexible creatures that we are—WE DO! Clarity is the only important thing and once one gets into a writer’s way of writing, there is no crisis. Well, for the most part:

In the eighth century the first chinks of light appeared in the claustrophobic  scripto continua that had dominated writing for a millenium. English and Irish priests, in an attempt to help reader decipher texts written in unfamiliar Latin, began to add spaces between words (13).

Okay, I will admit—that helped things enormously. Still, overwhelmingly, for me, the history of the how and why of our modern punctuation is fascinating and diverting fun. While the struggles with the hyphen and dash are directly related to the problems of the printer trying to justify his text, it is simply good fun to be aware of the different symbols and uses, and there is an elegance to the “well-set dash.”

The history of the pilcrow is a beautiful example of the metamorphose and efficiency of the nature of language. What started as a K to signify kaput, meaning head (of a section), in Latin is capitulum. The pilcrow, which some will recognize as that backwards P denoting paragraph, is really an elaborate C for capitulum, while the word itself, pilcrow, has its etymological roots in paragraph. As Houston describes it, the symbol become such a popular device in manuscripts that it effectually “committed typographical suicide” (16). In the production of manuscripts there were several distinct stages and persons whom performed the stages. A scribe would write all of the words but would leave spaces for the rubricator (in red ink) to add the versals and other notations, such as the pilcrow. As the pilcrow increased in popularity the rubricators couldn’t keep up. They simply ran out of time and began to leave some of them blank. When printing took over there was an earnest attempt to mimic manuscripts, when confronted with an un-rubricated space, they simply left it blank too. And there you have the blank indentation which denotes, for all of us, a paragraph.

The ampersand is another wonderful tale and its long lost brother, the Tironian et, equally so. We are inundated with text around the clock, a book such as Houston’s illuminates the long arm of our written history with all of its successes and failures (sarcasm punctuation anyone? Anyone at all? sigh. Apparently not). When one sees how capricious a history it is the hubris of the grammar snob is deflated just a bit. No good comes of static standardization after all, it’s unnatural.

*title from p. 130: the undesirability of long words undermining the typesetter’s ability to justify text easily, hence the promiscuous use, in incunabula (early printed books) works, of hyphens.





8 responses to “Polysyllabic Sesquipedalianisms (and other annoyances)

  1. Oh what a delicious break-fast this was!!! I simply adore punctuation and relish it’s reckless use in all that I write!

  2. Oy! Who knew these things? I mean, I sit, read the Times, schmooze, maybe nap a little and then read that my whole life I thought paragraphs were on purpose and what do I find?! Some phumpher, some nishgutnick didn’t want to bother with some fershugginah upside down backwards golf club called a “pilcrow”? Makes me tired. When’s lunch?

  3. I’m going to have to get it as it sounds like an interesting read, It brings to mind a book I’ve got that I haven’t started yet, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary.

    People do get worked up about punctuation in the same way they do about their prescriptive grammar ways.

    “Clarity is the only important thing and once one gets into a writer’s way of writing, there is no crisis.”

    So true.

    • Oh that is a wonderful book! I also read Winchester’s subsequent one about the overall making of the OED (rather than that particular relationship) that was equally wonderfully interesting.

  4. Grammar can also be a source of accidental humour when accidentally misused. It’s a matter of horses for courses. What’s acceptable on a handwritten sign for a hitch hiker is not ok in a textbook.

  5. Interesting rant on punctuation. I’m teaching typography this block. I try to explain that there are 3 dashes: hyphen, en-dash and em-dash. And they have different uses. I find it odd that an em-dash is supposed to be the least invasive—most conversational—parenthetical device, but visually it’s the most distracting.
    Nice to know know I’m using the pilcrow correctly. when writing I often don’t stop for paragraphs, I come back later and draw a big “s” within the line and put a pilcrow in the left margin. Don’t do versals anymore though.
    I will try to get the school library to get a copy me “shady characters…” it sound fun. Have you read “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image”? You don’t have to buy into it all to enjoy it, kinda like “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” that way.

  6. Was it a rant? Oh dear…

    I think I will have to look for the “Alphabet V Goddess” book, that sounds fun.

    I agree the em dash is visually distracting, but it seems to me to be the point. – A thought is going along, nice and un-rant-like when —bam! new thought! That does happen, no? I think it only right that our punctuation reflect the violence of the interruption.

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