A post from Shady Characters

Punctuation in Practice: a Workshop

Melanie Wiener’s poster for “Punctuation in Practice”.
Melanie Wiener’s poster for “Punctuation in Practice”. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Bonapfel.)

My mind is spinning.

Last weekend I attended “Punctuation in Practice”, a workshop on punctuation held at the leafy Dahlem campus of Berlin’s Freie Universität. I was there along with six other participants at the invitation of Dr Elizabeth Bonapfel, a postdoctoral fellow who has written extensively on American and English literature, with a particular focus on James Joyce1 and a more recent interest in the punctuation of speech in 18th century drama and literature. Other attendees included Charles Lock, professor of English at the university of Copenhagen, Dr Anne Toner of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Dr Stewart Brookes, research associate in digital palaeography at King’s College, London; and suffice it to say the other presenters were not exactly lacking in academic heft, either.

I, on the other hand, am a blogger and writer of popular non-fiction books. (Popular, that is, with reference to their genre, not necessarily their actual popularity.) I was agog.

Our remit, as Elizabeth describes on the workshop’s web page, was as follows:

This international workshop, “Punctuation in Practice,” investigates how punctuation—as a way to organize syntax and mark pauses on the page—changes throughout literary history. The workshop seeks to explore a range of punctuation practices (or lack thereof) from medieval manuscripts through printed drama and poetry to the novel and contemporary literature by bringing together experts from a range of genres and time periods.

This workshop takes as its starting point Adorno’s statement about the historicity of punctuation (“History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation”).2 With a focus on historical conventions and change, this workshop will explore how punctuation organizes the basic structures underpinning our expectations about literary style, conventions, and genres.

As trepidatious as I was going into the workshop (I was down to open proceedings with a short talk on the history of the pilcrow; as a reader of Shady Characters, of course, you already know it all), I needn’t have worried. My co-presenters suffered my presentation with good grace, and the rest of the two-day workshop passed all too quickly. I have pages of notes filled with books and papers to read, fascinating titbits of punctuation lore, and many statements ending with an elliptical question mark (“…?”) offering new avenues for investigation. Some highlights:

  • At least three of the attendees had been on first name terms with the eminent Malcolm Beckwith Parkes, the man who rewrote the history of punctuation in the west, and whose book, Pause and Effect,3 was a major source of inspiration for me in writing Shady Characters. According to Charles Lock, once Parkes’ student, Parkes lived next door to crime author Colin Dexter in Oxford, and (I paraphrase) may have been partly responsible for inspiring the character of Inspector Morse — or at least his irascibility. (In an introduction to a later book, Parkes thanked Dexter for helping to improve his writing style.4)
  • Separately, Stewart Brookes and Mark Faulkner delivered fluent performances of 12th-century Old English manuscripts as part of their respective presentations. A few lines of Beowulf aside, I’ve never read the language nor heard it spoken aloud before, and it was a treat to hear Stewart and Mark perform it so well. It was also a disconcerting experience: Old English has just enough commonality with its modern descendant that I felt that I was skating along the edge of comprehension. In an odd way, it was like watching an episode of Wallander, the Swedish television programme — certain Scots words like “bairn”, “hoose” and “noo” translate more or less directly into Swedish, and I had the same feeling of intermittent understanding as Mark and Stewart regaled us with Ælfric’s medieval prose.*
  • As an occasional reader of graphic novels, John Lennard’s trip through Tintin, Watchmen, and Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor was engaging and eye-opening. John proposed an “eight-level scale” of punctuation, leading from letters themselves (which punctuate empty space, as John put it) via the conventional notion of punctuation as discussed here at Shady Characters, and all the way up to books and other works punctuating the space around them. A vertiginous journey, and a thought-provoking idea.

This is not to ignore the other presenters, Anne Toner, Jeffrey Gutierrez and Elizabeth herself, all of whom gave excellent presentations, nor Hannah Hiassen, who choreographed and performed in a work called Punctuate to round off our first day. It was an honour to attend and a privilege to get to know everyone — thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me, and thank you all for being so approachable and so willing to entertain my half-baked ideas!

I must thank Claire M.L. Bourne for her help in unpicking some nuances surrounding the disappearance of the pilcrow, and Nicholas Birchall for the use of an image. Thank you both!

Unknown entry 
Unknown entry 
Unknown entry 
Unknown entry 
Unknown entry 
Unknown entry 
Philip Durkin explores the evolution of English, including its roots in Old English and the Scandinavian influences on it, at Oxford Dictionaries Online.5 
John’s punctuation scale is elucidated in his article “Mark, space, axis, function: towards a (new) theory of punctuation on historical principles”.6 
You can watch Punctuate here

2 comments on “Punctuation in Practice: a Workshop

  1. Comment posted by Randolph on

    Once again, Keith, lucky you. I look forward to the liquid blogs of the distillation of your notes and impressions from the workshop. You have whet our thirst!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Agreed! I was fortunate indeed to have been invited. I’ll try to do justice to my notes over the coming months.

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. If you prefer to contact me privately, please see the Contact page.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>. Learn how your com­ment data is pro­cessed.