A post from Shady Characters

Shady Characters at the BBC: punctuation that failed to make its mark

An ironieteken, courtesy of Olivia Howitt.
An ironieteken, courtesy of Olivia Howitt.

I had the pleasure, recently, of writing another article for BBC Culture. It’s called “Punctuation that failed to make its mark” and it’s a sort of Shady Characters greatest hits, a compilation of a few of my favourite marks that tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to achieve widespread acceptance. There’s Martin K. Speckter’s evergreen interrobang, or ‘‽’, intended to punctuate an excited or rhetorical question; Bas Jacob’s clever but ill-fated ironiteken, or irony mark, as shown above; and the excellent quasiquote (), or paraphrasing mark, first sent in to Shady Characters back in 2014 by the late Ned Brooks.

Like the first article, it was fun to write; also like the first article, it was often more difficult to choose what to take out rather than what to leave in. Have a read and, as ever, let me know what you think of it!

Update: the article is now available in Spanish at La Nacion.

14 comments on “Shady Characters at the BBC: punctuation that failed to make its mark

  1. Comment posted by Jeremy on

    That’s a nice article, Keith! I must confess that anyone who starts with the extremely fertile world of SF ‘zines is always going to get plaudits from me, because that sci-fi has for too long been ignored as “geeky rubbish” by the mainstream – bizarre given the number of PhDs who wrote stories!

    The major problem for new punctuation being accepted is that it needs to be mediated by others – there is no easy way to get a new mark incorporated into fonts. However, one thing I have noticed more often is the use of asterisks before and after a word to *emphasise* it. Somehow it has a slightly different meaning than italics. Any thoughts?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jeremy — thanks for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid (less so now, although I’m still a big fan of Iain M. Banks), and it was nice to be able to chat to Ned about the quasiquote and to poke around generally in the whole world of ’zines.

      You’re right about the problem with new punctuation. It’s possible (and increasingly common) for websites to use custom fonts, but there isn’t yet an analogous technology for instant messaging, email, or social media. Even if you manage to get your symbol into a typeface, you can’t yet use it in the places that count.

      *Asterisks* for emphasis is, in internet terms, quite an old practice. It’s usually considered to be equivalent to bold text.

    2. Comment posted by Jeremy on

      Thanks, Keith – I think I’d only come across asterisks in that form on web forums previously, probably from when HTML tags were not accepted (at least outside comics/graphic novels where it was fairly common). However, I recently bought a recently published ebook where italics and asterisks are used differently (examples of each on the same line for instance, so unlikely to be accidental). Perhaps it is to indicate bold (though why not just use the tag?)

    3. Comment posted by Jeremy on

      Hah – defeated by my own cleverness! The end of the last sentence is supposed to be “… tag”.

    4. Comment posted by Jeremy on

      Aaargh! This posting software is too clever! I’m trying to say ” … the HTML tag for bold”.

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jeremy — yup, it’s difficult to write about HTML tags without actually using them by mistake! I get your point, though.

  2. Comment posted by C on

    The trademarked sarcmark is actually פ, a Hebrew letter which in certain forms contains a dot.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi there — that’s an interesting idea! I haven’t heard that yet in connection with the SarcMark, although it’s entirely possible that that’s where its creators took their inspiration from.

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Ben — thanks for posting this link! That does look very much like the SarcMark. It makes their trademarking of the glyph rather ironic, doesn’t it?

  3. Comment posted by C on

    P.S. In your companion article on the history of punctuation, you write ‘As the Roman Empire crumbled…, Rome’s pagans found themselves fighting a losing battle against a new religion called Christianity. Whereas pagans had always passed along their traditions and culture by word of mouth, Christians preferred to write down their psalms and gospels to better spread the word of God.’

    As it happens, Jewish texts, such as the Psalms were written long before Christianity spread the word, and were probably known to the Romans, who learned a lot from the Jews they captured together with Jerusalem etc.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That’s certainly true. I don’t mean to belittle the Jewish tradition of written scripture in any way, only to suggest that for Rome and for Europe, the Christian tradition was the one that had the greatest effect in terms of writing practices. M.B. Parkes talks about this evolution in punctuation (and in writing practices more generally) in Pause and Effect, and it’s his argument that I’m drawing on here.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Comment posted by Michael Anthony on

    Just a pat on the back … I truly enjoy your email coming through. When I see “Shady Characters” in my inbox, I always smile, knowing that my day filled with outlandish rubbish will come to a complete stop for a few minutes as I read through the post.

    Now continue on with your business.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Michael — thank you very much for saying so! It’s great to hear that people out there enjoy coming to Shady Characters. I will now, as you say, continue on about my business.

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