Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

October 1, 2013

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.

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On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ)

August 15, 2013

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives:

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal.

And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way. Complete omission of the article is more common…

You can read the rest here. Will you be adopting Ћ?


Next up: Could you care less? is about the expression I could care less and the constant cavilling it attracts. In David Mitchell’s entertaining video at the Guardian, he protests that the phrase implies you do care and is “useless as an indicator of how much you care”. I suggest that that’s true only

in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. . . . Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with I could care less. . . . As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like I could give a damn, which is synonymous with I couldn’t give a damn.

Read on if you couldn’t not care more or less about this, or for older articles visit the archive.

Twitter tips for business writing

February 13, 2013

I’ve a new article up at Emphasis Training, a writing consultancy based in Brighton, UK. It’s about Twitter – specifically, it offers tips on how to reduce character count in tweets without sacrificing intelligibility or professionalism. (Twitter allows just 140 characters per message.)

The article looks at editing, abbreviation, punctuation, symbol use, and other areas. It’s aimed primarily at business-writing professionals but may also be of some general interest, and there’s a challenge at the end (with a small prize) for people who use the service.

Though I mention Twitter regularly here, I haven’t written about it much. So if you’ve any general thoughts on it – or tips along the same lines as my article – I’d love to hear them.

Some people have separate accounts for shop talk and personal use, but that wouldn’t suit me: too much blending has occurred! I tweet mostly about language, books, writing and editing, but I make room too for chat and miscellany. No breakfast photos, though.


Thanks to all who read the article, left comments, or took part in the challenge. Emphasis now have a follow-up article assessing the submissions and announcing a winner.


The invented languages of Ithkuil and Blissymbols

December 20, 2012

Joshua Foer has a long and interesting article at the New Yorker on Ithkuil, an original language with “two seemingly incompatible ambitions”: to be both maximally precise and maximally concise, so it can convey “nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible”.

As you might expect, sentences in Ithkuil are very information-rich and rather intimidating; for example, Ai’tilafxup embuliëqtuqh means “All the people of the land spoke the same language.” That’s Ithkuil with our familiar Roman letters – it has its own script too, shown in this translation of the opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

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Terrence Deacon on language evolution

December 20, 2011

Was it William Burroughs who first described language as a virus from outer space? I’ve always liked the analogy, though it may be more useful to think of language as a symbiont from inner space.

In his book The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon describes the language-as-a-virus metaphor as extreme but helpful. He identifies the most basic principle guiding the design of languages to be “not communicative utility but reproduction — theirs and ours”.

Deacon feels the best way to study language structure is to do so from an evolutionary point of view. Languages have co-evolved with their hosts — us — under the forces of selection. This can help us make sense of children’s precocious rate of linguistic development:

The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds. Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. . . . Language structures that are poorly adapted to this niche simply will not persist for long.

As language emerged in tandem with the human nervous system — each adapting to the other — it drew on existing cognitive abilities. The facility for language is not the responsibility of some dedicated device in the brain but rather is spread across many parts of it.

In his excellent article “Rethinking the natural selection of human language”, Deacon writes that

the neural structures and circuits involved in the production and comprehension of language are homologous to structures found ubiquitously in most monkey and ape brains: old structures performing unprecedented new tricks.

Below is a video of Deacon giving a talk in 2010 called “Language & complexity: Evolution inside out”. It’s quite a technical presentation (I was grateful for my distant background in genetics and developmental biology), but Deacon is a clear and engaging speaker and his subject matter is deeply interesting.

A post at Replicated Typo, reporting on the talk, says Deacon’s ideas are “our best avenue for exploring how language evolved”. Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn is similarly impressed; he writes that the strength of Deacon’s proposal is that it “[describes] a mechanism for the brain changes that support language”:

The old view that language functions are confined to a few regions like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, or even the left hemisphere can no longer stand. Language processing involves complex coordination between multiple systems. But the modern human brain is a relatively recent acquisition. How did all that complexity evolve and become coordinated?

Deacon has some persuasive thoughts on this. Birdsong, some of you will be happy to hear, features quite a lot. The talk lasts about an hour, with a short Q&A at the end.

Do you ♥ words with no letters?

August 23, 2011

A recent tweet from @bengreenman posed the question: “I know that there are a number of one-letter words, but are there any words with no letters?” It got me wondering. Many of the examples that follow will be in a grey area of wordishness, and I’m liable to contradict myself and change my mind about some of them, but let’s see where it goes.

The first word-with-no-letters that occurred to me, probably because it’s in vogue, was +1. It has several uses. The one I see most is as a shorthand exclamation equivalent to Hear, hear! or I agree (+100 for I strongly agree), but it’s used increasingly often as a noun and a verb, with inflected forms like +1’s, +1’d, and +1’ing. Google+ is helping to popularise these forms, whose punctuation and morphology were explored in recent articles by Gabe Doyle and Ben Zimmer.

Ten-code numbers are codes, or even code words, but they’re not wordish enough to be words. Neither are the numbers in phrases like 20-20 hindsight, the terrible 2’s, and at 6’s and 7’s. Yet numbers do move beyond maths, codes, shorthand and set phrases to genuine lexical usage. Some become niche adjectives, and some get inflected beyond mere plurality; relatively few, however, seem to attain widespread or lasting currency.

Notable examples include 69, 86, 1337 (leet), and 404. Websites that return a 404 (“file not found”) error can be described as 404’d, 404ed, 404ing, 404-ing, and so on. A UK Post Office study found that 404 is also in colloquial use as an adjective meaning useless or clueless. Wordspy has an example from The Buffalo News, 1999:

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Link love: language (32)

July 5, 2011

Language-related links I liked lately, and you might too:

Encounters with biblio-amnesia.

An introduction to Blissymbols (PDF).

Nabokov on synaesthesia and the colours of the alphabet.

Railspeak should be terminated.

Spoken style correction: the iPeeve™.

Top punctuation boffins sort out the multiple shriek stop!!!!!

ScriptSource: documenting the world’s writing systems.

History of the ampersand, part 1, part 2, part 2½.

The linguistic history of Venice.

Swedish pre-school drops gendered pronouns (and Cinderella).

New research into how children learn their first words.

The 72-word door, or, the legacy of Webster’s Third.

Are swear words appropriate in the ‘sacred space’ of Russian theatre?

Glossary of new medical slang.

The evolution of English: an interactive timeline.


[Links archive]