Author Keith Houston on shady characters and the secret life of punctuation

Keith HoustonThis month Keith Houston is our guide to the sometimes-forgotten (but eternally-interesting) realms of punctuation. His blog Shady Characters and its eponymous book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation explore the history and use of the marks that make our work so readable.

You went from working on medical visualization software to studying punctuation—how did you make this leap?

Some years back I was planning to redesign a couple of websites, and that’s where it all started. A programming colleague recommended that I read The Elements of Typographic Style, an excellent primer by a Canadian typographer named Robert Bringhurst, while a writer friend suggested Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography. At the back of Bringhurst’s book was a glossary of typographic characters; among them was the pilcrow, or paragraph mark (¶), which in turn recurred throughout Gill’s Essay. After reading a bit more about Gill and his use of the pilcrow, the idea for Shady Characters almost suggested itself: there were so many underused, marginalised, or misunderstood marks out there that I started reading and writing about the subject almost immediately.

Can you share one or two of the more surprising punctuation stories you came across while researching your book?

For me, the interrobang’s meteoric rise (and equally abrupt fall) is the most fascinating of the stories I investigated. It’s a combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark (‽), intended to signal a surprised or rhetorical question, and the very fact that I can enter one with my computer keyboard (and your readers can see it rendered in their web browser) is testament to how doggedly it clings to life. It was invented in the early ’60s by an advertising executive named Martin K. Speckter, who wrote a pair of magazine articles about it; rather incredibly, it subsequently made its way into a typeface named Americana and later onto the keyboards of certain Remington Rand and Smith-Corona typewriters. Speckter had managed to create a new mark of punctuation that could be written, typed, or printed, and which survives to this day— even if only as a “cult” mark of punctuation.

I was lucky enough to meet Martin’s widow, Penny, while in New York City last year, and I think our meeting may have been the high point of writing Shady Characters. She completely charmed my wife and me, and we talked for hours about punctuation and typography.

Is the printing press mostly at fault for much of our lost punctuation, or are there other trends or machines to blame? Do you see this happening again with any modern devices?

The printing press is certainly responsible for the deaths of a number of marks I wrote about in Shady Characters, and the pilcrow is probably the best example. Scribes traditionally left  spaces in which pilcrows would later be added in contrasting ink, but printing presses produced documents so rapidly that there was often no time to decorate them as such. The pilcrow disappeared, and the paragraph indent was left behind.

Having said that, I’m not sure that the printing press is responsible for a great deal of “lost” punctuation, as such. To my mind, the typewriter is guiltier by far: the earliest typewriter keyboards did not have exclamation marks (typists had to type a period, a backspace, and then an apostrophe to simulate one), and the various different dashes—the em, en, figure, and quotation dashes, along with the hyphen—were conflated into a single “hyphen-minus” key that still blights the computer keyboard. Not only that, but many people persist in typing two spaces between sentences because it looked better in the context of a typewriter’s monospaced letters. The typewriter has a lot to answer for!

Now, though, computers provide an opportunity to return to the golden age of the printing press. Just about any character you care to name is available at your fingertips (even if it requires some digital gymnastics to use), and inventing a new character or punctuation mark is within the reach of anyone who feels the need to do so. As frustrating as computers can sometimes be, they are freeing in a way that the printing press and the typewriter only hinted at.

What about proofreaders’ marks? Would these be considered punctuation, or are they more a technical language?

I’d say (and this is the opinion of a new and under-practiced writer) that proofreaders’ marks are a meta-language, a way to convey information about writing rather than to punctuate it directly. They describe a temporary differential between the way a piece of writing is and how it should be; once applied, they disappear. I’m reminded of a similar concept in programming called “patching,” which is the application of a set of changes to a file to bring it up to date, even though the changes have no meaning in and of themselves.

Are there any new punctuation marks that we should introduce for modern reading?

Keith: I’d love to see the interrobang make a comeback, though I’m not sure it qualifies as a “new” punctuation mark any more. Failing that, I think that a robust irony mark could be genuinely useful for electronic communication where brevity is important. The most convincing such mark I’ve come across so far is the ironieteken, designed by Bas Jacobs of Underware, a European type foundry, and which looks very much like a zig-zag exclamation mark. Bas created variants of the ironieteken for four of Underware’s typefaces, and it fits in well with existing type (an example is at left, thanks to Bas Jacobs,

What are your favorite language resources or sites when researching these marks?

For general reading and inspiration I follow Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog, UPenn’s Language Log, and Mark Forsyth’s blog The Inky Fool.

Google Books is my first port of call for online research, and once I’ve found a book I want to read I check it out at the National Library of Scotland here in Edinburgh. The NLS also provides access to the academic journal archive JSTOR and the OED, both of which are invaluable resources. Lastly, Wikipedia is a great resource where traditional research fails—it may occasionally be under-referenced or incoherent, but I find it often takes me to new areas of interest and can throw up some truly useful nuggets of information.

For reference purposes, I find myself returning to Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, M. B. Parkes’ Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, and G. A. Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book. The Chicago Manual of Style is, of course, indispensable once I start to write in earnest!

Keith Houston is the creator of the Shady Characters blog. He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Photo of Keith by Cate Gillon

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