(between the lines)

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 languageBrain 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 artBrain 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.

Grammar society admit’s defeat

The Apostrophe Protection Society was started by journalist and sub editor John Richards, in 2001. 18 year’s later, hes calling it a day.

‘Laziness has won’: apostrophe society admits its defeatThe Guardian
Now 96, Richards is calling time on the society, which lists the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark.

Writing on the society’s website, he said: “Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language.

“We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The societys website, however, is keen to point out that its still up and running, with many fine photo’s of apostrophe misuse on it’s ‘Example page’s.

Update – 06/12/2019

Heres an interesting follow-up.

Apostrophes: linguistics expert imagines a happier world without themThe Conversation
Hardcore apostrophites would no longer be able to roll their eyes at people’s inability to work out where the apostrophe goes in examples such as “The Joneses front door”, “Holding each others hand” or “Others opinions”. Neither would they be able to indulge in their habitual mocking of someone who has used the wrong form of “its”.

In fact, by removing apostrophes altogether, the pedantry arsenal is vastly reduced. Without their favourite punctuation mark of judgement, your average pedant will be forced to make do with old favourites such as split infinitives and insisting on the “correct” meaning of “decimate”. …

In reality, the Apostrophe Protection Society did not, of course, hold dominion over apostrophes or any other aspect of English. Nobody does. Linguistic conventions (for this is all they are) come and go, and are often based on idiosyncratic preferences from another era. A good grasp of apostrophe use says more about your ability to remember inconsistent patterns than it does about your intelligence.

It seems to me that apostrophes are used to judge others as much as they are used to clarify writing. Maybe the APS finally saw the light and realised this, and decided it wanted no further part in the snobbish pedantry that surrounds this fetishised punctuation mark.

See also this earlier post about apostrophe use.

Full stop stop stop

Back in Newport we once tried to set up an art magazine/brand thing called Ellipsis. We had no clue what we were doing, but I always liked the name. I use ellipses frequently — and inconsistently — on this blog, so I really should pay attention to this piece on them from Quartz.

The word ellipsis might be Greek for “to fall short,” but the unassuming symbol has taken on more life than its size implies, a common phenomenon for punctuation marks in lives that are becoming increasingly text-heavy. But as the design and display choices made by tech giants and software designers influence more and more of our behavior, we paused to consider how much weight three little dots can carry. …

A symbol of hesitancy, apprehension, indecision, and more to come sounds tailor-made for the internet. As instant chat became more popular in the ’90s, designers began to use the ellipsis as a “typing awareness indicator.” While intended to reassure the person on the other side that a response was forthcoming…its unintended effect was an intense anxiety when a response was taking too long.

One space or two? One! Every time!

This has been a bone of contention between me and my better half for a while now. She was trained as a touch-typist back in the Twentieth century. I wasn’t.

One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.
The rules of spacing have been wildly inconsistent going back to the invention of the printing press. The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence used extra long spaces between sentences. John Baskerville’s 1763 Bible used a single space. WhoevenknowswhateffectPietroBembowasgoingforhere.Single spaces. Double spaces. Em spaces. Trends went back and forth between continents and eras for hundreds of years, Felici wrote.It’s not a good look.

And that’s just English. Somewrittenlanguageshavenospacesatall and o thers re quire a space be tween ev e ry syl la ble.

Ob viously, thereneed to be standards. Unless you’re doing avant – garde po e try, or something , you can’tjustspacew ords ho w e v e r y o u want. That would be insanity. Or at least,


I really hadn’t appreciated how much of an issue this was. Some US psychology researchers sought to determine the correct approach once and for all.

First, they put the students in front of computers and dictated a short paragraph, to see how many spaces they naturally used. Turns out, 21 of the 60 were “two-spacers,” and the rest typed with close-spaced sentences that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.

The researchers then clamped each student’s head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced, and strange combinations like two spaces after commas, but only one after periods. And vice versa, too.

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better. It makes reading slightly easier.

So it seems scientific research is against me. I’m still not changing my mind, though, as the study’s methodology is not without its critics.

No, you still shouldn’t put two spaces after a period
The study used Courier New… This alone makes the test useless. One-spacers already agree that typewriters and monospace fonts use two spaces after the period (except some screenwriters, who use one space). But reading a proportional font and a monospace font are two completely different scenarios. The study even acknowledges this: “It is possible that the effects of punctuation spacing seen in the current experiment may differ when presented in other font conditions.” Of course it’s possible—that’s what the whole debate is about! Why would you use Courier New!

Update 27/05/20

Microsoft Word now flags double spaces as errors, ending the great space debateThe Verge
Microsoft has settled the great space debate, and sided with everyone who believes one space after a period is correct, not two. The software giant has started to update Microsoft Word to highlight two spaces after a period (a full stop for you Brits) as an error, and to offer a correction to one space.

For want of a comma, $5 million was lost

See? I told you these kinds of things were important.

Oxford comma dispute is settled as Maine drivers get $5 million
Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

And now read this poem on the importance of the Oxford comma, from Brian Bilston.

Reading without words

​A novel, visual way of reading books.

Punctuation in novels
Here is a comparison of some other books — notice how large a break A Farewell To Arms was from the past. There almost no commas, just sentences, dialogue. How refreshing and wild that must have been! Look at how spartan Blood Meridian is compared to everything. Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.​

The 5 best punctuation marks in literature

Schulz: The 5 best punctuation marks in literature
The muse gets all the press, but here’s a fact: Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks. It’s 1 a.m., you’ve got a 5,000-word piece due the next day, and for the last twenty minutes you’ve been deliberating about the use of a semicolon versus a period in a single sentence. (But should it be two sentences? Twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes … ) As a rule, the effect of all that obsession is subtle, a kind of pixel-by-pixel accretion of style. Once in a while, though, a bit of punctuation pops its head up over the prose, and over the prosaic, and becomes a part of a tiny but interesting canon: famous punctuation marks in literature.

This is a fabulous list, though far too short. (It’s got me worrying over my own punctuation now? Could that comma have been a dash? Do I overuse them?)

1. The parentheses in Nabokov’s Lolita

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”

The sentence goes on — for 84 more words, eleven commas, one colon, one semicolon, and another set of parentheses. But the reader, like Humbert Humbert’s unlucky mother, stops dead. Nabokov is a daredevil writer, and often a florid one, but what he shows off here is unbestable economy. Like the lightning inside it, this parenthetical aside is swift, staggering, and brilliant. It is also Lolita (and Humbert) in miniature: terrific panache containing terrible darkness.

Speaking of punctuation

Following on from that punctuation post just then, here are a few more:


I’m finding the dictation feature on my new phone very handy, but even though it supports a whole range of spoken punctuation marks and “new line” and “all caps” and all that, it seems to be struggling with Andorpersand, Hedera and Love Point. Shame.

A short history of punctuation

Via The Browser, a quick dash through the history of punctuation.

“Writing in ancient Greece was broken by neither marks nor spaces. Lines of closely-packed letters ran left to right across the page and back again like a farmer ploughing a field. The sole aid to the reader was the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke in the margin that indicated something of interest on the corresponding line. It was up to the reader to work out what, exactly, had been highlighted in this fashion”

Maximal meaning in minimal space: the history of punctuation (shadycharacters.co.uk)