The best thing about running Shady Characters, bar none, is when a reader alerts me to a genuinely novel punctuation mark. A symbol I haven’t seen before, perhaps, or one that fills a niche I hadn’t ever considered. Ned Brooks checked both these boxes when he posted to the Shady Characters Facebook page to tell me about the so-called quasiquote. I’ll let Ned introduce this fantastic mark of punctuation:
The interrobang was discussed on the Yahoo group for typewriter collectors, and it reminded me of another punctuation mark popular at one time in mimeographed science fiction fanzines – the quasiquote. This was made of the ‐ typed under the " and meant that the phrase quoted might be the sense rather that the exact words from some source.1
First, a bit of background. “Fanzines”, for the uninitiated, are self-published magazines produced by the fans of a particular hobby — science fiction, punk music or video games, to pick just a few — and are often characterised by a lo-fi approach to their printing and distribution. As Ned mentions, early ’zines were “mimeographed” — that is, they were produced using an early type of copying machine called a mimeograph. A master stencil of each page was produced by typing onto a sheet of wax paper and was then copied by the machine, which forced ink through the stencil and onto a blank sheet of paper.2*
The use of typewriters to prepare mimeographic stencils made it easy to overstrike mistakes (the traditional fanzine approach was to do this with slashes — ‘/’ — rather than ‘X’s or dashes), or even to deliberately combine characters. “The interrobang was easily made with a back-space and over-type”, as Ned told me via email, which is remarkable in itself. But this quirk of typewriter operation also allowed the construction of the fabled quasiquote, where a hyphen and quotation mark were overstruck to produce something like
"this ", or 'this ', and which encapsulated an abbreviated or paraphrased quotation rather a verbatim report of the speaker’s words.
Ned’s explanation of the quasiquote would have been intriguing enough by itself, but he outdid himself by sending me scans of two fanzine lexicons that described and demonstrated the quasiquote in action. Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the definition of the quasiquote as given by the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer, one of the founding fathers of fandom:3
And later, from the 1966 reprint of the 1955 Neofan’s Guide by one Bob Tucker, a fan who went on to become a professional writer in his own right:4
Despite its novelty outside the fanzine community, the quasiquote was no flash in the pan. Attested as early as 1944 (and likely created even earlier), it is still used in some ’zines and has even lent its name to one: Londoner Sandra Bond published a science-fiction ’zine named QuasiQuote from 1999 to 2008,5 adopting the name of the mark “because (to me) it evoked a nicely retro feel, as well as commemorating a typographical quirk I thought deserved to be remembered.” Ironically enough, as technology has advanced the quasiquote has become more difficult to type, and Sandra told me that “the quasiquote as used in QuasiQuote, the fanzine (i.e. this: -") was only in that form because unlike a manual typewriter where overstrikes were possible, I couldn’t put both the quote and the hyphen in one space in a word processor.”6
Where now, then, for the quasiquote? Graphically, there’s nothing to stop the quasiquote from appearing on computer screens everywhere. Modern word processors may lack a simple way to overstrike characters but they almost universally allow text to be struck out with a horizontal line; HTML, too, the language of the World Wide Web, allows text to be struck out in a similar manner. I dont know about you, but I think that these
“hacked-together quasiquotes ” look rather fetching.†
It’s far more difficult to see how quasiquotes might fare as a regular mark of punctuation. They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation (I’m looking at you, SarcMark®) the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye. Even so, the lot of the newly-invented (or, if I may say so, newly-discovered) mark of punctuation is rarely an easy one. We all know how the interrobang fared — neither snuffed out entirely nor enshrined in common use — and the quasiquote will surely face just the same uphill struggle for acceptance. I, for one, will be rooting for it.
Thanks to Ned Brooks for getting in touch and for his scans, and to Sandra Bond for answering my questions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please leave a comment below if you’ve come across the quasiquote or any analogous mark in print!
Brooks, Cuyler, W. “Personal Correspondence”. Keith Houston, 2014, Keith Houston, 2014.
Bond, Sandra. “Personal Correspondence”. Keith Houston, 2014, Keith Houston, 2014.
- You can see a mimeograph in operation in this video. ↢
- These quasiquotes were created by applying the <del/>, or “deletion” tag to opening and closing quotation marks. The resultant “hyphens” are a little thick, but with some CSS magic they could be made to be thinner and more in keeping with the font. ↢