Punctuation..?

A Review of Punctuation..?

I was recently delighted to receive in the mail a copy of Punctuation..?, an illustrated guide to punctuation marks, published in 2012 by UK book designer, User design. At 35 pages, it concisely treats 23 distinct punctuation marks, from the everyday comma to the more arcane interpunct (inter·punct).

Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.
Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.

If at times imperfect, its explanations are accessible and helpful. Its illustrations are offhanded and whimsical. Its examples are light-hearteded and playful, refreshingly plain in the way they are drawn from ordinary life. And its design is clean and minimal.

There are a few curiosity-tickling factoids, too, such as its historical thumbnail of the medieval, paragraph-marking pilcrow (¶) or, more unusual to American eyes, the guillemet (« »), used on the European continent (and around the world) for quotation marks and named for a 16th-century French printer.

Speaking of differences, I also enjoyed several, small “huh’s” and “oh yeah’s,” recalling that, say, the American period is the British full stop, compelling me to appreciate that subtle geography of punctuation conventions.

I may not consult Punctuation..? for my punctuation questions, and nor would I consider its treatment authoritative, but that’s besides the point.

This book is a beautiful little art object and a well-made book–and I really enjoy it for that.

And the overall effect of its design, explanations, illustrations, and examples leaves me with a feeling of punctuation as–how should I describe it–intuitive. This is in part because the text is unpretentious and unthreatening, particularly in an age where still too many tout grammar as the ability to uphold historically arbitrary rules or bemoan “the end of English” because perfectly useful concepts like YOLO are codified in dictionaries.

But it is also in part because of the clever incorporation of the punctuation marks into its illustrations, such as the way the semicolon is used to link the illustrations, rendering the content the form, as seen below:

Semicolon; image courtesy User design.
Semicolon; image courtesy User design.

Punctuation can be so abstract and so intimidating. So I admire how Punctuation…?, infusing the marks into its images, makes punctuation concrete, and with a quiet simplicity. Punctuation is to serve our human communication needs, after all, not the other way around.

Here at the Mashed Radish, I resonate with that concreteness. I strive for it, working to pull out of word origins those core phenomena–those essential actions and objects, the raw materials of human language–preserved in our many words. To this end, what might the origins of some of the names for our punctuation marks reveal..? We’ll have a look in upcoming posts.

m ∫ r ∫

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7 thoughts on “Punctuation..?

  1. Great; I’ll look for it. Punctuation always raises typographical issues – like in the use of em dashes and en dashes. Em dashes, as you employed in your “feeling of” sentence, should be preceded and followed by a letter-space. To get a proper em-dash on my Mac, or in Microsoft Word, you type “option/dash.” The en-dash is not in common use these days. Correct hyphenation is another issue: most dictionaries use a small bullet to indicate where words may be hyphenated, but style guides and copy editors often make their own rules, including never hyphenating a proper name, avoiding too much hyphenation in a column of type, and, in marketing text, never hyphenating at all.

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    1. Absolutely! Depending on who’s talking about it, punctuation is a many-splendored thing or totally over-rated. Thanks for sharing about the book…I love the way it’s illustrated.

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    2. Concerning the em dash, Punctuation..? did remind me that is conventional in the UK to set an em dash off with spaces while not so in the US. For all of our desire for uniformity and consistency, we do tolerate a lot of room for variety and nuance. What’s interesting to me is how easily punctuation can excite passions.

      Good points on typography and its impact on punctuation. Fascinating, isn’t it, that the use of spaces really took off when many more manuscript copies of books (like the Bible) were being made?

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