Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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‘The’ way to emphasise a word

June 14, 2016

Quotation marks for ‘emphasis’ are common in unedited writing but rare in formal prose, where italics are the usual approach. Bold and underlines are occasionally used; ditto *asterisks* and _underscores_. ALL CAPS and Initial Caps are sometimes favoured but can suggest shouting, humour, or a headline effect, so they’re more suited to informal contexts: both are popular on social media, for example.

There’s an anomalous example in a book I just read, Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist, an engrossing memoir/exposé by Paul Kimmage (Yellow Jersey Press, revised edition, 2007). It occurs about halfway in; Kimmage is describing the effect of Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France:

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Link love: language (62)

April 11, 2015

For your weekend-and-beyond reading pleasure, a roundup of language-related items I’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks:

Gibberish as a tool of empowerment for girls.

Rewilding our language of landscape.

Historical slang terms for money.

Ghost of editor past (cartoon).

What part of ‘No, totally’ don’t you understand?

Ending utterances with a comma is definitely A Thing.

A corpus of 25,000 early English texts is now openly available.

The amazing story of the Doves Press typeface.

Old proverbs we should use more often.

Swearing around the world.

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The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland

September 18, 2014

Over the door of the Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, sits a very old and unusual typographical mark. Between Beár (bar) and Bialann (restaurant) there is a Tironian et (⁊), Latin for and.

stan carey - warwick hotel, salthill galway - tironian et

The Tironian et is a remnant of Tiro’s shorthand system, which was popular for centuries but is now almost entirely discontinued. The mark lives on in just a couple of writing systems, one of which is Irish.

Even Irish people who respond to the phrase Tironian et with blank looks are familiar with it from bilingual street signs like this one:

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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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Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

October 18, 2012

As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.

So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.

I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.

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It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”

The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.


Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types

February 14, 2012

In 1937, a hundred years after its founding, the Bauer Type Foundry issued Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types:

I know little about typeface design, still less its history, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I like the idea of a family tree of types, and it’s a fine presentation: the fonts are like colourful garden birds preening peaceably in the sun, each showing off its unique qualities.

For detail and supplementary text, see Steven Heller’s post at Print magazine, which brought the tree to my attention.