A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 55: ¶ < & < +

Christmas shopping getting you down? Me too, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my list of things to find and buy. Here, then, are a few links of a punctuational kind to help take your mind off the next plunge into city-centre shopping madness. Enjoy!

First up is this excellent piece about the origin, use, and design of the pilcrow by Marcin Wichary, a designer at long-form blogging site Medium. As Marcin explains:

Today, reading is a breeze and it’s all the empty space around characters that lets this breeze through. Commas, apostrophes, dashes require little ink, but still surround themselves with generous canvases. Lowercase letters are often content with occupying very little of the space provided. And then there’s pure whitespace too, vast and uninked: room in between rows of letters, pauses flanking words, and the most lavish convention this side of Page intentionally left blank — tens of thousands of pixels off-duty, creating breathing room in between paragraphs. (Just look around, right here on this page.)

But all that whitespace did not appear overnight, and travelling back through thousands of years of history provides clues on how we went from then to now.

The pilcrow will be familiar to Shady Characters readers, of course, and Marcin skips directly from its ancient origins to its appearance in type, but I urge you to take a look at his essay nevertheless. Marcin’s writing is airy and entertaining, his illustrations are superbly, well, illustrative, and he makes a strong case that the pilcrow is becoming an endangered species — its visual design is often clunky and uninspired when compared to other shady characters such as the ampersand. Have a read!

If the pilcrow is suffering from a lack of enthusiasm, it seems that the ampersand is actively coming under attack, in London at least. Back in September, Victoria Stewart of the London Evening Standard reported on a curious scuffle between the ampersand and the plus sign being played out on the signage and menus of London’s ever-changing restaurant scene. Victoria lists some of the protagonists:

In the first category, we have the plus sign, which is increasingly creeping into signage for bars and restaurants including Peg + Patriot, Sager + Wilde, Jackson + Rye and the new Yorkshire wraps business Hereford + York. A Danish café, Snaps + Rye, and a Soho yakitori venture, Blood + Wasabi, arrive soon.

In the second category, we have the & or ampersand, taken up by juice company Roots & Bulbs and bar-and- restaurants Silk & Grain and Wine & Charcuterie. Very soon we can also add a salt beef and salmon café, Delancey & Co, and the Southbank pop-up, Krug & Krustacean, to the mix.

The suggestion, she writes, is that the plus sign is “stronger” in some way than the stuffy ampersand — that a mathematical addition is more primitive, more vital than a simple Latin ‘and’. This is clearly not a war in which lives are going to be lost, but it does make me wonder if we’re seeing the first cracks in the ampersand’s millennium-long reign as the West’s preeminent ‘and’-sign. What do you think? Is the ‘+’ on the up, is the ampersand on the defensive, or both?

Image courtesy of Cynthia Batty.
Image courtesy of Cynthia Batty.

Lastly, Shady Characters reader Cynthia Batty has asked a favour of me, and I am happy to oblige. As a type designer, typographer, and author on the subjects of design and typography, Cynthia has amassed a huge collection of wooden type over the course of her career. Now, though, she is “seeking good homes” for around sixty drawers’ worth of such type pictured over at her Flickr account. If you’re interested in taking a case or two (or sixty!) off her hands, please drop her a line on Twitter @CynthiaBatty — she promises that shipping won’t be prohibitive, even to European recipients. If you’ve ever fancied your hand at some typesetting, or if you’re a letterpress studio looking to expand your collection of type, why not get in touch with her?

11 comments on “Miscellany № 55: ¶ < & < +

  1. Comment posted by Richard on

    It is not uncommon to read blurb extolling the virtues of some product and find “and plus” some additional virtue. Maybe this usage will make it through to punctuation and we shall see “&+” appearing.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Richard — I haven’t noticed that before. We shall have to watch &+ wait.

  2. Comment posted by Jeremy on

    I have noticed the rise of “+” in titles, though I think it is just a passing fad. However, having taken what might well be hundreds of miles of handwritten notes over the years, I regard the ampersand as too fiddly for quick writing, and instead use a sort of “+” with the far-left and top ends joined. I don’t know if this is a real character (maybe from shorthand?) and I was taught it at some point, or whether it just morphed from a “+”and lazy writing. However, it stands out from the text and (at least with my handwriting), does not get confused with a “t”.

    No real point to that comment – just an observation that, in some situations, the ampersand can be a nuisance.

  3. Comment posted by Jamsheed on

    I … use a sort of “+” with the far-left and top ends joined.

    Well, you’re doing it all wrong! It’s supposed to be the far left and bottom ends that you join together. And I know I’m right, because that’s how I have been doing it all my life.

    But seriously, I wholeheartedly agree.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jamsheed, Jeremy,

      Your comments reminded me of a Master’s thesis I found on the web a couple of years ago. Rebecca Kirch studied the various forms of the ampersand and plus sign (you can see her work here), and the “joined-up” plus sign you both describe was one of the three main forms of ‘and’-sign that she studied. Spoiler alert: of your two respective styles, Jamsheed’s version is more common.

      Thank you both for the comments!

    1. Comment posted by Brian on

      wow is right! They look like an awesome software company ;-)

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — thanks for joining the conversation! How did you arrive at the name for your firm?

    3. Comment posted by Brian on

      Hi Keith,

      Long story, but our CEO was basically talking to one of his friends about naming the company and said something like “we are great at X, and plus we have really good Y, and plus we know how to do Z and plus….” and his friend said, “why don’t you just name it AndPlus. So here we are…AndPlus.

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