Tag Archives: grammar

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.





Two Syllables In Love

Between what I see and what I say,
between what I say and what I keep silent,
between what I keep silent and what I dream,
between what I dream and what I forget:
Octavio Paz from, To Speak: To Act


The Poems of Octavio Paz is a compilation of works by the Mexican poet that lived from 1914 – 1998, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. It is a book, like many,  I mostly read standing in a kitchen while I transformed the random ingredients found in a client’s refrigerator into a beautiful meal. Broccoli con muddica (Sicilian cauliflower pasta with toasted bread crumbs – I love the Sicilian word muddica) and a perfectly pretty pink rhubarb compote slipped in between the verse, my wooden spoon periodically pausing to allow a sigh, letting the words oxygenate  my blood.

Cold rapid hands
draw back one by one
the bandages of dark
I open my eyes
I am living
                at the center
of a wound still fresh

In his poem A Draft of Shadows Paz has a beautiful line: To see the world is to spell it. I am an abysmal speller and this may in fact explain my skewed and incorrect perspective of the world. Now I know. The little dictionary I carry with me has been asked far too much, it simply is not up to the task of correcting all I see. Oh well, at least I can successfully correct for salt.

I love that Paz constantly refers to the mechanics of his art. The punctuation, the spelling and the syllables. He and I are mesmerized by the forms and functions. It’s not just the meaning of the words – it is the ingredients – the words, the commas, the syllables! Sílabas: se enlazan y se desenlazan (Syllables twine and untwine).

I am in a room abandoned by language
You are in another identical room
Or we both are
on a street your glance has depopulated
The world
imperceptibly comes apart
decayed beneath our feet
I am stopped in the middle of this
unwritten line

From Trowbridge Street

His poems are nearly always dedicated to someone, either someone he presumably knew or was inspired by, including the translator of the book which is marvelous to consider. There must be something very different in a collaborative translation, even if the author has no depth of fluency, the auditory and visual aspects can be experienced and molded.

Many of his poems are very long. I’m a little scared of very long poems, but when they capture – it’s awe. Blanco is one such. It is wonderful in many ways, its length is what gives a melody to the usual beat of poetry. By the forth or fifth page reader and writer are harmonizing, and its resonance is deep.

In The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa said (roughly) that poetry expressed everything- in a language that no one speaks. I love that idea: a language no one speaks. We are all bilingual! So what if it is a language of one? Through poetry one can originate a language of their own soul or, as reader, become sole translator to another’s. I’ve always wanted to be a translator. That’s grand.

In between yours and mine, you and me, is an entire lexicon, grammar, and comprehension.  If only someone could speak me. I speak Paz, but of course, it isn’t Paz when I speak it- between us there is yet another.

Words are inexact
and say inexact things.
But saying this or that,
                             they say us.

From Letter of Testimony

* Title comes from the extraordinary poem – Blanco.

for Lasse Söderberg

The world leaps
in front of thought
in front of sound
the world leaps like a horse
in front of the wind
like a sulfur bull
in front of the night
it’s lost in the streets of my skull
the tracks of the beast are everywhere
the scarlet tattoo on the face of the tree
the ice tattoo on the tower’s forehead
the electric tattoo on the sex of the church
its claws in your neck
its paws on your belly
the violet sign
the sunflower that turns towards the target
toward the scream toward the bored
the sunflower that turns like a flayed sigh
the signature of the nameless across your skin
everywhere the blinding scream
the black swell that covers thought
the angry bell that clangs in my head
the bell of blood in my chest
the image that laughs at the top of the tower
the word that explodes words
the image that burns all the bridges
the woman who vanished in the middle of a kiss
the derelict who killed her children
the idiot the liar the incestuous daughter
the persecuted doe
the prophetic beggarwoman
the girl who in the middle of my life
wakes me and says remember

The Tao and Grammar of Augustus

My 10 year old son came to me with a serious problem- he wanted to know why there was no punctuation for the opposite of an exclamation point. I sympathized. I asked him for an example of what he meant and he gave me a sentence  spoken with an acute underwhelmed emphasis:
And it kept on going
I told him that I usually put three periods at the end of a sentence like that:
And it kept on going…
but he was rightly and righteously dissatisfied. He suggested this:
And it kept on going .

His unenthusiastic interjection will be a period under a line- it is less than...less than a period. Minus the finality, surety and seriousness of a full stop. A perfect indication of the all important tone of sarcasm. He is correct, as usual. I wish there was a body of grammatical overseers that I could forward his complaint and remedy to, but I only have you.