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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Punctuation History and How Technology Caused Some Changes

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical MarksShady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


orators needed some indication of where to, at least, take a breath. So began the use of punctuation and the development of its rules.

The first two sentences of this review shows a very early form of writing, actually the all upper case primarily in the Greek because that was the only case they had ( Homer's time ) and the ox-turning style from line to line. One of the earliest developments was the use of dots between words like.this or maybe:this. In time, paragraphs were introduced and a punctuation, that I never knew had a name, the pilcrow, appeared. I'm glad to know its name and I like it--my early grade school writing had so many red pilcrows, those funny looking P's with lines through them like dollar signs, that I despaired of ever obtaining an "A" on an essay or, indeed, ever reach a point where my first submission would be accepted for a grade, without a rewrite. Oh, but the permutations that aggravating mark endured before reaching the form favored by those nuns of my training!

If, you, like me, detest that horrible car commercial with the robotic girl who sits in the driver's seat and crosses her fingers as she intones " hashtag, something or other" you will be happy to know that hashtag, which I will always call the pound sign--for the weight measurement, not the amount of pressure exerted on the keypad, has an alternate name--the octothorpe! And this will now be my new favorite word for the sign. But who developed it and who named it? Well, Bell Labs and touchtone phones played a part.

And how about Ampersand? Where did that sign come from? But isn't it a great word and what would A&P do without it?

How about an interrobang--I want one. When I call out Who finished the toilet paper, whilst sitting on the throne, it is more than a simple interrogatory remark--it is an exclamation of dismay at the same time. What better than an interrobang to express that combination of feelings?

Do you think @ was developed solely for email addresses? Think again! And where did asterisks come from--I prefer that term to star--or the dagger? How about hyphens and dashes--they are not the same thing and dashes come in many forms including en dash and em dash. Even Castle talked about fitting words to the page in a recent episode. Quotation marks as inverted commas? Doubled, of course!

But then there is the manicule--I love the manicule--it is used in rebus writing all the time. A hand with a pointing finger--maybe with a nice cuff or a ruffled flounce, perhaps with hand in a fist or index finger outlandishly enlongated. Originally, not printed in texts, handwritten and illuminated or printed on a press, but rather a device of the reader to mark out lines on which were made marginal notes. One I love is not a manicle at all but an adorable octopus whose tentacles embrace several lines, much like a bracket.

Throughout the book we meet the people who developed these devices that make reading so much easier but make writing a bit more difficult with its rules. We see how the coming of mass produced documents written by hand, copied and recopied, and eventually printed with presses of moveable type caused some of these symbols to be eliminated or changed to accommodate progress.
The advent of the typewriter and touch-tone keypads and, in time, the development of computer keyboards continue to impact punctuation and even vocabulary.

This book does not read fast--it is dry in places but for the most part is interesting and even humorous. The debate that has taken place for ages to arrive at some indication of irony and sarcasm in text is particularly fun. If language and writing interest you, this is a book you want right up there with Roget and Funk & Wagnall and Webster, among others. Looking for something new to bring up at your next cocktail party? Try the discussing the evolution of the octothorpe! Have fun!

This was a first reads giveaway that I will share with my teacher friends and that guy I met at last week's cocktail party--just kidding!

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