Miscellany № 86: back in the saddle

Well, ✨that was fun✨❗ For now, though, it’s time to work our way through some of the punctuation-related links and news articles that have cropped up during our stay in emojiland. Stick around; there’s some great stuff to come.


First, via the always fascinating Language Hat, comes word of a paper entitled “Pull out all the stops: Textual analysis via punctuation sequences”.1 In it, Darmon, Bazzi et al ask the question: is it possible to identify individual writers using only their punctuation? That is, if you remove the words from a piece of writing, can you mathematically fingerprint the writer by the marks that remain? The answer is a firm “sort of”. I’ll leave you to read the full paper to find out more.


Next up, Russell Harper, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s “Shop Talk” blog, delves into breaks in fiction. You know the ones I mean — more significant than a new paragraph but less significant than a new chapter, and typically separated by blank lines, asterisms (* * *), bullets (• • •), or other typographical flourishes. Russell investigates the means by which various authors (or the typographers who designed their books, or perhaps both in concert) chose to set off breaks in their novels with varying degrees of success.


On the subject of significant breaks, I am extremely late in bringing to your attention an intriguing tweet published by Katie Henry back in 2018, but it is too good not to share:

If you ever feel self-conscious about your writing, please know that in 1802, a man named Timothy Dexter published a 9,000-word book with seemingly arbitrary capitalization and literally ZERO punctuation.2

And it gets better. The book in question is called A pickle for the knowing ones, or, Plain truths in a homespun dress,3 and it was self-published by the aforementioned Timothy Dexter as a gift for his friends.4,5 The lucky recipients must have been bamboozled by its contents: Dexter used unpredictable capitalisation and a spelling system of his own invention. What he did not use was punctuation: neither a comma nor a full stop was there to interrupt his stream of thought.5 Here, for reference, is the opening passage, cut off at what seems to the end of a sentence:

Ime the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey Now bons broaken all is well all in Love Now I be gin to Lay the corner ston and the kee ston with grat Remembrence of my father Jorge Washington the grate herow 17 sentreys past before we found so good a father to his shildren and Now gone to Rest6

Well, alright then. As Randy Nelson explains in The Almanac of American Letters, “Literary historians have never been able to decide whether this little book is hoax, lunacy or avant-garde.”5 Certainly, Dexter might have harboured any or all of those motivations. Born a commoner, Dexter styled himself a lord and made a fortune through a series of improbable business deals — among others, he exported coal to the mining mecca of Newcastle during a miners’ strike, and repurposed bed-warming pans as cooking pots for molasses and sold them in the Caribbean. With his money he established a retinue comprising a fortune-teller, a simpleton and a pornographer, and housed them in a mansion surrounded by wooden statues of notable figures. Himself included, of course.4

For the second edition of Pickle (eight would be published), Dexter acknowledged that some readers might have had trouble with his lack of punctuation. Accordingly, he wrote,

the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese

Here is that very same peper and solt as it appeared in the fourth edition:

Punctuation marks from Timothy Dexter's "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones"
Timothy Dexter’s punctuational “peper and solt”, taken from the fourth edition of A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

Lastly, reader John Chulick brought to my attention Adam O’Fallon Price’s essay on the em dash, or ‘—’, published in 2018 at The Millions.7* Price explores em dashes in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Emily Dickinson and others, and I’ll leave it to him to explain why the mark is worth our attention:

For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash. I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay. And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it — even disdain it. It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential. You can get along without it and most people do. I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing.7

On a related note, Stan Carey, another must-follow at Sentence First and Strong Language, also wrote about dashes in 2018. Stan focused on the em dash’s abbreviated sibling, the en dash, and specifically its use to hyphenate compound terms. I remember being tickled at the concept upon learning of it in the Chicago Manual (it is as subtle as it is useful), and Stan more than does it justice at Sentence First. Well worth a read!

1.
Alexandra Darmon N M et al., “Pull Out All the Stops: Textual Analysis via Punctuation Sequences”
2.
Katie Henry, “If You Ever Feel Self-Conscious about Your Writing, Please Know That in 1802, a Man Named Timothy Dexter Published a 9,000-Word Book With Seemingly Arbitrary Capitalization and Literally ZERO Punctuation.”, Twitter, 2018. 
3.
Timothy Dexter, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, Or, Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress”, 1802. 
4.
Reader’s Digest Association., “Coals To Newcastle”, in The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, 1975, 501. 
5.
Randy Nelson F, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones”, in The Almanac of American Letters, 1981, 206-7. 
6.
“A Pickle For The Knowing Ones - Split Pickle - Folio 1/4”, www.LordTimothyDexter.Com
7.
Adam O’Fallon Price, “Regarding the Em Dash - The Millions”, The Millions
8.
Nora Maynard, “You Call That a Punctuation Mark?! The Interrobang Celebrates Its 50th Birthday”, The Millions, March–2012. 
*
Loyal readers will remember that The Millions published a profile of Penny Speckter,8 the wife of interrobang inventor Martin Speckter, some years back. 

Shady Characters on Glenn Fleishman’s Tiny Typecast

A couple of months ago, in the midst of writing my emoji series, I took some time out to have a chat with Glenn Fleishman for his new podcast series, the Tiny Typecast. Glenn is an old friend of the blog and is astonishingly well-informed about books, typography and all things related: we talked about books and book history for what felt like a few minutes, but turned out to be the better part of an hour. Glenn is easy to talk to and, if you check out our conversation on Apple Podcasts or at Glenn’s blog, you’ll find that he’s easy to listen to, too. (The jury is still out on yours truly.)

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Emoji, part 10: state of the nation

We’ve come a long way, 👶, in this series of posts on emoji, and it’s time to round things up.

We’ve seen how emoji were invented, where they came from, and how they went global. We’ve examined the technical and political infrastructure that underpin the emoji we see on our smartphones and computer screens, and we’ve watched emoji transcend their electronic roots to appear in the news, in the courts, in the movies, and more.

We’ve dug into emoji’s problems with diversity, how the Unicode Consortium have tried to address them via annual updates, and the positive but incomplete steps taken as a result. We asked if emoji are a language, a script, or something else, and we’ve looked both at the proprietary “stickers” that threaten emoji and Unicode’s own attempts to break emoji out of their walled garden.

What, then, is the state of the emoji nation? In the final post in this series, we look at emoji’s journey so far and their prospects for the future.

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The Book (책의 책) is now available in Korean!

Cover of the Korean edition of The Book
The Korean edition of The Book, on sale now and published by Gimm-Young Publishers.

I’m happy to announce that The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time is now available in Korean, courtesy of Gimm-Young Publications. It’s available now, priced at ₩24,800, and you can take a quick tour via Google Books.

And — and! — I somehow forgot to mention that the English edition of The Book is now, and has been for some time, available as an audiobook narrated by Dennis Kleinman. You can find it at Kobo, Audible, audiobookstore.com or wherever else you get your audiobooks.

Lastly, are you looking for a last-minute Christmas present for the bookish person in your life? If you haven’t already bought them a copy, the UK Kindle edition of Shady Characters is currently on sale at the low, low price of £1.99.


If you happen to buy or borrow a copy of any of these editions, please leave a comment below or drop me a line via the contact form to let me know what you think!

Emoji, part 9: going beyond

Given all we’ve seen so far in this series, it becomes natural to wonder: what’s next for emoji? And how do we even begin to answer that question?


We saw in part 7 that emoji are neither a language nor a script. But if we might be permitted for a moment to call them script-like, then, of all of the scripts and script-like things that we use to communicate online, emoji were perhaps the first to be native to the digital world. They were born to inject life into Japan’s teen-friendly poke beru, or pagers; later, they were adopted by Apple, Google, and other companies who have made their money online; and, under the care of the Unicode Consortium, they continue to be tended to by a group of nerds of the highest order. (As a software engineer by trade, I say that with the greatest respect.)

As such, it should come as no surprise that emoji have been, and continue to be, darlings of the tech industry. Emojli, the emoji-only social network, may have folded back in 2015,1 but that same year saw online payment company WorldPay muse that emoji might reasonably replace numbers when it came to PINs, reasoning that a combination of four distinct emoji makes for a significantly more secure password than four distinct digits.2* Also in 2015, Snapchat, an edgy messaging service popular with younger users, added emoji to indicate relationships beween users; a year later, Facebook, a distinctly non-edgy social network, augmented its internet-ancient “like” button (👍) with a palette of five additional “reaction” emoji (❤️, 😆, 😮, 😢 and 😠).4,5

Apple, as befits one of emoji’s earliest adopters in the West, have worked emoji especially hard. In 2017, the newly-launched iPhone X came with what Apple called “animoji” — animated, three-dimensional emoji with the ability to replicate the user’s facial expressions.6 It sounds odd, and, well, it was; within a day of the iPhone X’s unveiling, Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch opined that “Animoji are dumb and I detest them”.7 Dumb or not, Apple have since doubled down on the “weird animated emoji” front, last year launching a “memoji” feature that creates custom, emoji-style stickers based on the user’s facial appearance.8

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*
A study conducted in 2017 showed that in certain circumstances, emoji were indeed a practical alternative to PINs.3