Marks of Significance: On Punctuation’s Occult Power

July 31, 2019 | 12 books mentioned 1 11 min read

“Prosody, and orthography, are not parts of grammar, but diffused like the blood and spirits throughout the whole.”
Ben Jonson, English Grammar (1617)


Erasmus, author of The Praise of Folly and the most erudite, learned, and scholarly humanist of the Renaissance, was enraptured by the experience, by the memory, by the very idea of Venice. For 10 months from 1507 to 1508, Erasmus would be housed in a room of the Aldine Press, not far from the piazzas of St. Mark’s Square with their red tiles burnt copper by the Adriatic sun, the glory and the stench of the Grand Canal wafting into the cell where the scholar would expand his collection of 3,260 proverbs entitled Thousands of Adages, his first major work. For Venice was the home to a “library which has no other limits than the world itself;” a watery metropolis and an empire of dreams that was “building up a sacred and immortal thing.”

Erasmus composed to the astringent smell of black ink rendered from the resin of gall nuts, the rhythmic click-click-click of movable type of alloyed lead-tin keys being set, and the whoosh of paper feeding through the press. From that workshop would come more than 100 titles of Greek and Latin, all published with the indomitable Aldus Manutius’s watermark, an image filched from an ancient Roman coin depicting a strangely skinny Mediterranean dolphin inching down an anchor. Reflecting on that watermark (which has since been filched again, by the modern publisher Doubleday), Erasmus wrote that it symbolized “all kinds of books in both languages, recognized, owned and praised by all to whom liberal studies are holy.” Adept in humanistic philology, Erasmus made an entire career by understanding the importance of a paragraph, a phrase, a word. Of a single mark. As did his publisher.

Erasmus’s printer was visionary. The Aldine Press was the first in Europe to produce books made not by folding the sheets of paper in a bound book once (as in a folio), or four times (as in a quarto), but eight times, to produce volumes that could be as small as four to six inches, the so-called octavo. Such volumes could be put in a pocket, what constituted the forerunner of the paperback, which Manutius advertised as “portable small books.” Now volumes no longer had to be cumbersome tomes chained to the desk of a library, they could be squirreled away in a satchel, the classics made democratic. When laying the typeface for a 1501 edition of Virgil in the new octavo form, Manutius charged a Bolognese punchcutter named Francesco Griffo to design a font that appeared calligraphic. Borrowing the poet Petrarch’s handwriting, Griffo invented a slanted typeface that printers quickly learned could denote emphasis, which came to be named after the place of its invention: italic.


However, it was an invention seven years earlier that restructured not just how language appears, but indeed the very rhythm of sentences; for, in 1496, Manutius introduced a novel bit of punctuation, a jaunty little man with leg splayed to the left as if he was pausing to hold open a door for the reader before they entered the next room, the odd mark at the caesura of this byzantine sentence that is known to posterity as the semicolon. Punctuation exists not in the wild; it is not a function of how we hear the word, but rather of how we write the Word. What the theorist Walter Ong described in his classic Orality and Literacy as being marks that are “even farther from the oral world than letters of the alphabet are: though part of a text they are unpronounceable, nonphonemic.” None of our notations are implied by mere speech, they are creatures of the page: comma, and semicolon; (as well as parenthesis and what Ben Jonson appropriately referred to as an “admiration,” but what we call an exclamation mark!)—the pregnant pause of a dash and the grim finality of a period. Has anything been left out? Oh, the ellipses…


No doubt the prescriptivist critic of my flights of grammatical fancy in the previous few sentences would note my unorthodox usage, but I do so only to emphasize how contingent and mercurial our system of marking written language was until around four or five centuries ago. Manutius may have been the greatest of European printers, but from Johannes Guttenberg to William Caxton, the era’s publishers oversaw the transition from manuscript to print with an equivalent metamorphosis of language from oral to written, from the ear to the eye. Paleographer Malcolm Parkes writes in his invaluable Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West that such a system is a “phenomenon of written language, and its history is bound up with that of the written medium.” Since the invention of script, there has been a war of attrition between the spoken and the written; battle lines drawn between rhetoricians and grammarians, between sound and meaning. Such is a distinction as explained by linguist David Crystal in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation: “writing and speech are seen as distinct mediums of expression, with different communicative aims and using different processes of composition.”


Obviously, the process of making this distinction has been going on for quite a long time. The moment the first wedged-stylus pressed into wet Mesopotamian clay was the beginning of it, through ancient Greek diacritical and Hebrew pointing systems, up through when Medieval scribes began to first separate words from endless scripto continua, whichbroachednogapsbetweenwordsuntiltheendofthemiddleages. Reading, you see, was normally accomplished out loud, and the written word was less a thing-unto-itself and more a representation of a particular event—that is the event of speaking. When this is the guiding metaphysic of writing, punctuation serves a simple purpose—to indicate how something is to be read aloud. Like the luftpause of musical notation, the nascent end stops and commas of antiquity didn’t exist to clarify syntactical meaning, but only to let you know when to take a breath. Providing an overview of punctuation’s genealogy, Alberto Manguel writes in A History of Reading how by the seventh century, a “combination of points and dashes indicated a full stop, a raised or high point was equivalent to our comma,” an innovation of Irish monks who “began isolating not only parts of speech but also the grammatical constituents within a sentence, and introduced many of the punctuation marks we use today.”


No doubt many of you, uncertain on the technical rules of comma usage (as many of us are), were told in elementary school that a comma designates when a breath should be taken, only to discover by college that that axiom was incorrect. Certain difficulties, with, that, way of writing, a sentence—for what if the author is Christopher Walken or William Shatner? Enthusiast of the baroque that I am, I’m sympathetic to writers who use commas as Hungarians use paprika. I’ll adhere to the claim of David Steel, who in his 1785 Elements of Punctuation wrote that “punctuation is not, in my opinion, attainable by rules…but it may be procured by a kind of internal conviction.” Steven Roger Fischer correctly notes in his A History of Reading (distinct from the Manguel book of the same title) that “Today, punctuation is linked mainly to meaning, not to sound.” But as late as 1589 the rhetorician George Puttenham could in his Art of English Poesie, as Crystal explains, define a comma as the “shortest pause,” a colon as “twice as much time,” and an end stop as a “full pause.” Because our grade school teachers weren’t wrong in a historical sense, for that was the purpose of commas, colons, and semicolons, to indicate pauses of certain amounts of time when scripture was being aloud. All of the written word would have been quietly murmured under the breath of monks in the buzz of a monastic scriptorium.

For grammarians, punctuation has long been claimed as a captured soldier in the war of attrition between sound and meaning, these weird little marks enlisted in the cause of language as a primarily written thing. Fischer explains that “universal, standardized punctuation, such as may be used throughout a text in consistent fashion, only became fashionable…after the introduction of printing.” Examine medieval manuscripts and you’ll find that the orthography, that is the spelling and punctuation (insomuch as it exists), is completely variable from author to author—in keeping with an understanding that writing exists mainly as a means to perform speaking. By the Renaissance, print necessitated a degree of standardization, though far from uniform. This can be attested to by the conspiratorially minded who are flummoxed by Shakespeare’s name being spelled several different ways while he was alive, or by the anarchistic rules of 18th-century punctuation, the veritable golden age of the comma and semicolon. When punctuation becomes not just an issue of telling a reader when to breathe, but as a syntactical unit that conveys particular meanings that could be altered by the choice or placement of these funny little dots, then a degree of rigor becomes crucial. As Fischer writes, punctuation came to convey “almost exclusively meaning, not sound,” and so the system had to become fixed in some sense.


If I may offer an additional conjecture, it would seem to me that there was a fortuitous confluence of both the technology of printing and the emergence of certain intellectual movements within the Renaissance that may have contributed to the elevation of punctuation. Johanna Drucker writes in The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination how Renaissance thought was gestated by “strains of Hermetic, Neo-Pythagorean, Neo-Platonic and kabbalistic traditions blended in their own peculiar hybrids of thought.” Figures like the 15th-century Florentine philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola reintroduced Plato into an intellectual environment that had sustained itself on Aristotle for centuries. Aristotle rejected the otherworldliness of his teacher Plato, preferring rather to muck about in the material world of appearances, and when medieval Christendom embraced the former, they modeled his empirical perspective. Arguably the transcendent nature of words is less important in such a context; what difference does the placement of a semicolon matter if it’s not conveying something of the eternal realm of the Forms? But the Florentine Platonists like Ficino were concerned with such things, for as he writes in Five Questions Concerning the Mind (printed in 1495—one year after the first semicolon), the “rational soul…possesses the excellence of infinity and eternity…[for we] characteristically incline toward the infinite.” In Renaissance Platonism, the correct ordering of words, and their corralling with punctuation, is a reflection not of speech, but of something larger, greater, higher. Something infinite and eternal; something transcendent. And so, we have the emergence of a dogma of correct punctuation, of standardized spelling—of a certain “orthographic Platonism.”  

Drucker explains that Renaissance scholars long searched “for a set of visual signs which would serve to embody the system of human knowledge (conceived of as the apprehension of a divine order).” In its most exotic form this involved the construction of divine languages, the parsing of Kabbalistic symbols, and the embrace of alchemical reasoning. I’d argue in a more prosaic manner that such orthographic Platonism is the well-spring for all prescriptivist approaches to language, where the manipulation of the odd symbols that we call letters and punctuation can lend themselves to the discovery of greater truths, an invention that allows us “to converse even with the absent,” as Parkes writes.  In the workshops of the Renaissance, at the Aldine Press, immortal things were made of letters and eternity existed between them, with punctuation acting as the guideposts to a type of paradise. And so it can remain for us.


Linguistic prescriptivists will bemoan the loss of certain standards, of how text speak signals an irreducible entropy of communication, or how the abandonment of arbitrary grammatical rules is as if a sign from Revelation. Yet such reactionaries are not the true guardians of orthographic Platonism, for we must take wisdom where we find it, in the appearance, texture, and flavor of punctuation. Rules may be arbitrary, but the choice of particular punctuation—be it the pregnant pause of the dash or the rapturous shouting of the exclamation mark—matters. Literary agent Noah Lukeman writes in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation that punctuation is normally understood as simply “a convenience, a way of facilitating what you want to say.” Such a limited view, which is implicit for either those that advocate punctuation as an issue of sound or as one of meaning, ignores the occult power of the question mark, the theurgy in a comma. The orthographic Platonists at the Aldine Press understood that so much depended on a semicolon; that it signified more than a longer-than-average pause or the demarcation of an independent clause. Lukeman argues that punctuation is rarely “pondered as a medium for artistic expression, as a means of impacting content,” yet in the most “profound way…it achieves symbiosis with the narration, style, viewpoint, and even the plot itself.”


Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks claims that “Every character we type or write is a link to the past;” every period takes us back to the dots that Irish monks used to signal the end of a line; every semicolon back to Manutius’s Venetian workshop. Punctuation, as with the letters whom they serve, has a deep genealogy, their use places us in a chain of connotation and influence that goes back centuries. More than that, each individual punctuation has a unique terroir; they do things that give the sentence a waft, a wisdom, a rhythm that is particular to them. Considering the periods of Ernest Hemingway, the semicolons of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson’s sublime dash, Lukeman writes that “Sentences crash and fall like the waves of the sea, and work unconsciously on the reader. Punctuation is the music of language.”


To get overly hung up on punctuation as either an issue of putting marks in the right place, or letting the reader know when they can gulp some air, is to miss the point—a comma is a poem unto itself, an exclamation point is an epic! Cecelia Watson writes in her new book, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, that Manutius’s invention “is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated.” And she is, of course, correct, as evidenced by all of those partisans of aesthetic minimalism from Kurt Vonnegut to Cormac McCarthy who’ve impugned the Aldine mark’s honor. But what a semicolon can do that other marks can’t! How it can connect two complete ideas into a whole; a semicolon is capable of unifications that a comma is too weak to do alone. As Adam O’Fallon Price writes in The Millions, “semicolons…increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal.” Or take the exclamation mark, a symbol that I’ve used roughly four times in my published writing, but which I deploy no less than 15 times per average email. A maligned mark due to its emotive enthusiasms, Nick Ripatrazone observes in The Millions that “exclamation marks call attention toward themselves in poems: they stand straight up.” Punctuation, in its own way, is conscious; it’s an algorithm, as much thought itself as a schematic showing the process of thought.


To take two poetic examples, what would Walt Whitman be without his exclamation mark; what would Dickinson be without her dash? They didn’t simply use punctuation for the pause of breath nor to logically differentiate things with some grammatical-mathematical precision. Rather they did do those things, but also so much more, for the union of exhalation and thought gestures to that higher realm the Renaissance originators of punctuation imagined. What would Whitman’s “Pioneers! O pioneers!” from the 1865 Leaves of Grass be without the exclamation point? What argument could be made if that ecstatic mark were abandoned? What of the solemn mysteries in the portal that is Dickinson’s dash when she writes that “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –”? Orthographic Platonism instills in us a wisdom behind the arguments of rhetoricians and grammarians; it reminds us that more than simple notation, each mark of punctuation is a personality, a character, a divinity in itself.


My favorite illustration of that principle is in dramatist Margaret Edson’s sublime play W;t, the only theatrical work that I can think of that has New Critical close reading as one of its plot points. In painful detail, W;t depicts the final months of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th-century poetry at an unnamed, elite, eastern university, after she has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, Bearing often reminisces on her life of scholarship, frequently returning to memories of her beloved dissertation adviser, E.M. Ashford. In one flashback, Bearing remembers being castigated by Ashford for sloppy work that the former did, providing interpretation of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VI based on an incorrectly punctuated edition of the cycle. Ashford asks her student “Do you think the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail?” In the version used by Bearing, Donne’s immortal line “Death be not proud” is end stopped with a semicolon, but as Ashford explains, the proper means of punctuation, as based on the earliest manuscripts of Donne, is simply a comma. “And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.”

Ashford imparts to Bearing that so much can depend on a comma. The professor tells her student that “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from everlasting…With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points…Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.” Ashford declares that “This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say?” Such is the mark of significance, an understanding that punctuation is as intimate as breath, as exulted as thought, and as powerful as the union between them—infinite, eternal, divine.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sam Town.

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

One comment:

  1. Pretty entertaining; a great trip through the art of thinking, writing – and perhaps more importantly; communicating!

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