Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.

NY: Norton, 2013.

Even most readers and those who make a living at different aspects of writing don’t really pay much attention to punctuation, beyond knowing vaguely where to stick the commas.

Copyeditors are aware of many other typographical nuances, such as the difference in appearance and usage between a hyphen and an N-dash, but even we seldom have to deal with pilcrows, manicules, and dieses. Houston stumbled over a pilcrow — which modern computer users will recognize as the “paragraph mark” in Microsoft Word — and researching its origins led him into the hazy world of obscure punctuation and its frequently ancient origins. Besides chapters on the pilcrow, the ampersand, the hyphen, the dash, the asterisk, and quotation marks (what the Brits call “inverted commas”), he also considers the octothorpe, or “hash mark” (which used to denote numeration or weight depending on where it was placed, before it was recycled on digital phones), the “@” symbol (rescued from obscurity in shop-keeping records and given new life on the Internet), the manicule (or “pointy finger,” one of my favorite bits of typographic art), and the interrobang — an invented punctuation-mark-in-waiting that has never caught on but deserves to. I know nothing about the author, except that he’s a Scot, but he writes very well, in a style that incorporates humor with scholarship. The book itself is also nicely designed, with an eye to celebrating the typography itself, and with numerous illustrations taken from ancient and medieval manuscripts. This is one of those books you’ll be quoting from to your friends for months to come.

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Published in: on 19 October 2014 at 6:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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