Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

Shady Characters - secret life of punctuation - Keith Houston - US book coverOne of the better looking books to land on my desk lately is Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Its contents, I’m happy to report, live up to the promise of its stylish cover.

Shady Characters builds on the author’s blog of the same name, taking readers on a hugely entertaining journey down the backroads of typographical history. As well as the familiar family of dashes, commas and other stops, it puts us on intimate terms with the lesser-seen pilcrow (¶), at-symbol (@), octothorpe (#), interrobang (‽), and irony marks, among others.

It also documents in satisfying detail my new favourite mark, the manicule (☞), or pointing hand:

If a reader’s interest stretched to a few lines or a paragraph, a manicule’s fingers could be elongated to bracket the required text; in some extreme cases, inky, snake-like fingers crawl and intertwine across entire pages to indicate and subdivide relevant text in a horror-film parody of the hand’s physical form. Very occasionally, manicules were not hands at all; in one fourteenth-century Cicero […] a five-limbed octopus curls about a paragraph, and in a seventeenth-century treatise on the medicinal properties of plants, tiny penises point out discussions of the male genitalia.

Anyone curious about the pointing octopus can see it here. (The illustration is included in the book, but the penises are not.) As if all that weren’t strange enough, apparently Petrarch had a habit of drawing manicules with a thumb and five fingers.*

Shady Characters shows how the demands of different text types (e.g. political pamphlets, theological debates, early novels) have influenced the use and form of punctuation, as in the engrossing chapter on quotation marks. Literary and technological norms are in constant, unpredictable flux, and the book’s engaging mini-histories document how this has affected our presentation of text, be it handwritten, printed, or typed.

In other hands this material might have become dense and pedantic, but Houston spins it well. He shows skilfully how, and where, some typographical marks spread while others waned or morphed into something new (as # arose from lb), and he acknowledges when the facts are uncertain. He also describes, without getting unduly sidetracked, how certain of them have been repurposed in electronic communication.

Fun facts abound. Early italics were lowercase only; the world’s longest footnote is introduced with the letter u; and the “ox-turning” style of writing (alternately L→R, R→L) is known as boustrophedon. The book reveals why some Qs have long tails and why H.L. Mencken, christened Henry, began using initials in his name: “his father broke the lowercase r letterpunches of a toy printing set one Christmas morning”.

There is a whole chapter devoted to the expressive interrobang, a “cult punctuation mark” more books should make use of, as I said in a recent review of Speculative Grammarian’s guide to linguistics. I was also pleased to see my photo of a Tironian et (⁊) on a Galway street sign in a chapter on the ubiquitous and much-loved ampersand, and wondered anew at how their respective fates contrast so drastically.

Stan Carey - íoc & taispeáin, with Tironian et

Each punctuation mark has a uniquely interesting past, and Shady Characters showcases them soundly, its rich and well-researched descriptions enhanced by ample illustrations and supplementary notes. There’s a nice account of footnoting itself, with special focus on the asterisk (*) and dagger (†), while the book also covers classical curios like the hypodiastole and diple periestigmene of Ancient Greece, and the percontation mark (⸮) and commash (,—) which enjoyed temporary favour centuries later.

Some claims struck me as inaccurate or excessive: I don’t think Cicero “crops up with indecent frequency in any discussion of punctuation or grammar” – though maybe that’s just me – and the semicolon has not been driven “almost to extinction”, despite some journalists’ claims: there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, and Houston’s own book makes frequent use of the mark. It also makes use of generic he (“a skilled debater gives his opponent enough rope to hang himself”), which I wish I didn’t keep seeing in books on language.

Hashtags are described as “terms used to group messages together according to common themes”, which is true but just one of their many linguistic functions, and the simplification does them a disservice. I don’t think paragraphs are “a purely semantic construct”, and, contrary to the book’s claim, quotation marks have indeed inspired pop songs in their name, as a quick search on YouTube proves.

But these are minor shortcomings that interfered little with the great enjoyment I got from Shady Characters. I read it cover to cover, but it’s the sort of book you can open at random and read and instantly love. Certainly you needn’t be nerdish about punctuation or typography to appreciate it: anyone interested in the broader subjects of literature, language and history will find much to relish here. As Houston writes:

In following the warp and woof of individual shady characters throughout their lifetimes, it is the woven fabric of writing as a whole that emerges. . . . Every character we write or type is a link to the past, and every shady character doubly so.

You can order Shady Characters in print or digital format from a range of publishers in the UK and US, or go here for an appetising peek at its contents.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Shady Characters for review. Previous book reviews are here.


* Given this legacy of indexico-anatomical creativity, I think we should introduce little feet for footnotes. When I suggested it on Twitter, Sue Walder and Christina Scholz named these hypothetical marks pedicules, while Camilla proposed “tiny bottoms for endnotes”. Can we make this happen?


20 Responses to Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

  1. Claire Stokes says:

    Looks wonderful!

  2. Stan says:

    I thought so anyway, Claire. It would make a good gift book (even a gift to oneself).

  3. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Just a thought. The notion of a modified “manicule”— a thumbed, three-fingered cartoony, puffy gloved hand (pointing index digit, erect thumb)) à la cartoon icons Mickey Mouse, Bugs, Daffy, Goofy… et al, could work well in the context of writings relating to classic cartoon animation, the art of cartooning, Disney/ Warner Bros. memorabilia, and such.*

    Stan, thanks for your thorough and generally favorable revue of “Shady Characters”. Really like the simple, yet bold graphic oomph of the cover design, and the understated, elegant use of crisp shapes and flat color.**

    For me, on first read, I found almost a subliminal hint of a pull-up-and-down window blind (shade) in that stark black shape, especially w/ the curly-cue note at its base. (I’m guessing the white shape is intended as a slightly stylized “pilcrow?)

    Refreshing to see the cover copy laid out on the bias, giving the illusion of the type receding in perspective, countering the 2-D flatness of the other cover compositional elements.

    * Full disclosure–cartoon animation and humorous illustration is one of my creative ‘hats’, so forgive my obvious bias in this regard.

    ** Some color purist peevers don’t consider black a true color. I agree to disagree on this point.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:



      Re/ my earlier brilliant suggestion, I totally forgot that those clever folks at Gmail already use a cartoon ‘Mickey’ gloved manicule (w/ the pointing index finger), as their floating cursor icon, controlled by the manipulation of the mouse.

      How ironic… get it… “Mickey”… “the mouse”?

      I’m still wiping the egg off my face, thank you very much. Oh well.

  4. These days I rarely see a character I don’t have a font for, but you got me with the percontation mark (aka reversed question mark, according to my lookup utility).

    That is all I was going to say, and I was about to turn it into a tweet, but then I decided to look up “percontation”, because I don’t know that word. Which is apparently not surprising, because the only dictionaries on Onelook that have a definition are Worthless Word of the Day and Wordnik.

    The Wordnik entry links to an article that says, “A backward question mark was used in English printing in the late 16th century to signal a rhetorical question, a question that did not expect an answer. It was called a percontation point, and it fell into disuse in the following century.

    I find it mildly annoying when people define a rhetorical question as one that doesn’t expect an answer, because of course not all such questions are rhetorical. A better definition is that a rhetorical question is one that is asked for the purpose of rhetoric (duh), i.e. to advance some point of view in an argument. It rarely comes up in conversation, but I believe a lot of people are confused on this point.

    End of brief, tangential rant.

  5. Stan says:

    Alex: I hope the review came across as highly favourable: it’s a very attractive and fascinating book. That’s a good point about computer cursors, how they mirror manicules of old. I’ve always liked how the arrow morphs into a (gloved?) hand when it hovers over a link, for example.

    Adrian: A little more on that: The percontation mark, according to Houston, was invented around 1575 by Henry Denham, an English printer “who so doubted the acuity of his readers that he decided to furnish them with a way to punctuate rhetorical questions”. But few of Denham’s contemporaries adopted the mark (some used italic or blackletter question marks for the same purpose), and it fell into disuse within decades.

  6. John Cowan says:

    Rhetorical questions are used constantly in the immigrant-influenced (not to say -dominated) conversational English of New York City, a classic example being “What, you think I’m doing this for my health?” Here are some fairly recent examples that were quoted in print (and called out as such, making them easy for me to find.)

    “Does *any* candidate for mayor in NYC have a plan to reduce [school] class sizes?”

    “Would you walk around the neighborhood carrying an unlicensed firearm if you knew that there was a good chance that you would be stopped and frisked?”

    “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?” (rival department stores; Gimbel’s is long since gone, but the catchphrase lingers on)

    “I assume that’s a rhetorical question?” (Press conference.)

    Not strictly conversational, but too good to miss:

    “When we hear the words Donkey Sauce, what part of the donkey are we supposed to think of?” (from a very negative restaurant review)

    and the old punchline:

    “Why *shouldn’t* Jews answer a question with a question?”

  7. Stan says:

    That’s a great set of questions, John. (It would make a good blog post, if you were so inclined.) The rest of the review, I notice, is full of similarly pointed questions. I still like Homer Simpson’s self-referential “Do I know what rhetorical means?”

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    Crazy about manicules and now pedicules.


  9. Stan says:

    WWW: As typographical marks go, manicules are unusually literal in appearance. I’d like to see more stretchy-hand style ones, and maybe the odd octopus.

  10. “Great” would be the right word to describe this effort.

  11. pghRower says:

    i love punctuation and proofreading marks! this should be a fun read

  12. […] Houston’s wonderful Shady Characters delves into the history of the Tironian et (and its cousin the ampersand). He writes that the mark […]

  13. old gobbo says:

    Sorry delay, must have missed this at the time – but must congratulate you on: “the engrossing chapter on quotation marks”. Only reservation is that I fear you may mean it seriously.

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