Who knew there was so much to say about punctuation, those strange squiggles that sit in between the usual carriers of meaning, the words?
How to punctuate with style: Lewis Thomas’s charming meditation on the subtleties of language – Brain Pickings
Thomas opens the essay, the whole of which is strewn with clever meta-demonstrations of his points about the marks, with a Russian nesting doll of punctuational observations:
There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops, we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).
As found in Maria Popova’s ever-wonderful Brain Pickings blog. She illustrates that post with images taken from Rathna Ramanathan’s artwork for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”.
A darkly delightful 1905 poem celebrating punctuation, newly illustrated in silkscreened typographic art – Brain Pickings
Morgenstern, a sort of German Lewis Carroll who crafted literary nonsense with an aphoristic quality and a touch of wry wisdom, was in his early thirties when he wrote the poem — a jocular parable of how dividing a common lot into warring subgroups produces only devastation and no winners. That he died mere months before the start of WWI only lends the piece an eerie air of prescient poignancy.