The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘punctuation’

A Period Equals Four Commas, and Other News

September 28, 2015 | by

Photo: Dvdgmz

  • Today in reading and statecraft: What’s your nation’s official book? Think. There must be one. “Each country chooses, prefers to be represented by a book,” Borges said, “although that book isn’t usually characteristic of the country. For example, one regards Shakespeare as typically English. However, none of the typical characteristics of the English are found in Shakespeare. The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person.”
  • Nothing causes more arguments than punctuation—of all the typographical elements, it’s ended the most marriages and caused the greatest number of bloody noses. But the contentions surrounding it have a rich history. “Scribes started to punctuate in order to make manuscripts easier to read aloud: they were signaling pauses and intonational effects. Grammarians and, later, printers adopted the marks, and tried to systematize them, as aids to semantic understanding on the page … The big four—comma, semicolon, colon and full stop—were for a long time, and insanely, regarded as precise measurements of a pause: a full stop was worth four commas.
  • In praise of the suburban lawn: “Even when you are indoors a lawn makes its presence felt. There is a palette of green hovering in your periphery, just outside the panes; breezes enter through open windows and screen doors, carrying scents of pine and gasoline. I was always dimly aware of being surrounded by a cushion of space, a feeling I never have in the city. Deep in the night, the lawn carries on its own hidden life. Animals stage unheard battles. My father found a cat’s head behind the shed. An unidentified predator dragged a chicken from a coop four backyards away, discarding the carcass, which looked like a crumpled Victorian hat, under my parent’s bedroom window.”
  • In the late nineteenth century, Hugh Mangum began to roam the South with a Penny Picture camera, taking portraits of all comers. “Mangum created an atmosphere—respectful and often playful— in which hundreds of men, women, and children genuinely revealed their spirits … Though the early twentieth-century American South in which he worked was marked by disenfranchisement, segregation, and inequality—between black and white, men and women, rich and poor—Mangum portrayed all of his sitters with candor, humor, and spirit. Above all, he showed them as individuals, and for that, his work—largely unknown—is mesmerizing. Each client appears as valuable as the next, no story less significant.”
  • Let’s talk about hair and its meanings, which are multiple, inscrutable, and, depending on whom you ask, probably sexual: “In his famous 1958 essay ‘Magical Hair,’ the anthropologist Edmund Leach developed a cross-cultural formula: ‘Long hair = unrestrained sexuality; short hair or partially shaved head or tightly bound hair = restricted sexuality; closely shaved head = celibacy.’ Leach was deeply influenced by Freud’s thoughts on phallic heads, although for him hair sometimes played an ejaculatory role as emanating semen.”

As American as April in Arizona, and Other News

August 12, 2015 | by

Nabokov in 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino

  • For three years, Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the maligned former governor of South Carolina. His book, The Speechwriter, suggests that Sanford’s grammar was as wanting as his ethics: “Nearly every page of this book is wet with the tears of a pedant. At their first meeting, Sanford interrupts Swaim to ask whether it is appropriate to begin a sentence with a preposition. Swaim suggests that he must mean a conjunction, in which case it is a silly non-rule that no good writer has ever observed. Sanford is unconvinced: ‘There’s a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions [sic]—conjunctions, whatever—and you can’t break rules.’ Determined to keep the boss happy, Swaim dutifully tries to remove ‘yet’ from a speech a few weeks later, only to be rebuffed by a colleague who assures him that Sanford ‘doesn’t know “yet” is a conjunction’.”
  • When Nabokov came to America, his whole style underwent a transformation, and he took pains to emphasize his Americanness; he said once that he was “as American as April in Arizona.” “Nabokov turned himself into a more purely American writer than many others have so far acknowledged … But the questions remain. Where did Nabokov really develop what Kingsley Amis, in a brilliant review of Lolita in The Spectator, called his ‘Charles Atlas muscle-man’ style of writing? Was it in St Petersburg or on an American campus? On the family estate back home in Russia or in the lonely motel rooms he and Véra liked to stay in on their long summer tours of the Rockies and the Southern states? Are literary audacity and effrontery really echt American or are they the products of aristocratic disdain?”
  • Somewhere deep in the annals of facial-hair scholarship you’ll find T. S. Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards, a treatise from 1875 or thereabouts that makes a series of dubious aesthetic and functional arguments for bearding: “‘The beards of foreign smiths and masons,’ he remarks, ‘filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.’ Bearded soldiers, he claims, are less likely to catch colds; and the ability of a moustache to warm the air is invaluable ‘in a consumption-breeding climate like ours.’” He also suggests that a shaved man resembles a monkey—contradicting more recent research that suggests that men grow beards expressly to indulge “simian displays of size and aggression.”
  • Today in holography: Alkiviades David, a forty-seven-year-old billionaire and hologram impresario, thinks that “the hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.” He imagines hologram performances so sophisticated that it would be possible to bring back Amy Winehouse. Or the Beatles. Or Jesus. But he seems to miss the fact that people have a limited appetite for novelties and imitations: “Ultimately, what is a hologram good for? … It’s entirely possible, even probable, that, at some point, David’s technology will be fully able to create and project a celebrity digital likeness that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, one that moves fluidly and organically and delivers unerringly consistent performances. But no matter how lifelike, a hologram still favors the second half of that adjective more than the first.”
  • The French artist Bernar Venet has written conceptual poetry since 1967, when the phrase conceptual poetry inspired many fewer grunts of disdain than it does now. His focus is on “the rudimentary syntax of the list,” and his “list poems” comprise everything from “synonyms to acronyms to currency exchange rates to the most frequented tourist destinations in France.” His poem “Monostique” is literally a math problem. “Following French semiologist Jacques Bertin, he associates figurative representation with polysemy (which is open to multiple meanings) and abstraction with pansemy (which is open to any meaning). Mathematical symbols, on the other hand, convey only a single, fixed meaning, and for Venet, such unambiguity has not yet been explored in the history of art.”

Hw r u ts mng?, and Other News

May 12, 2015 | by


Ethel Wakefield, a Western Union telegraph operator, June 1943.

  • “Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge,” a 52,438-word dissertation by a Ph.D. candidate named Patrick Stewart (not that one), “eschews almost all punctuation. There are no periods, no commas, no semicolons … ” Stewart “wanted to make a point about aboriginal culture, colonialism, and ‘the blind acceptance of English language conventions in academia.’ ” He conducted his oral exam last month; his teachers questioned him for hours. But in the end, he passed.
  • What someone ought to do is write an entire dissertation using turn-of-the-century telegraphy abbreviations, as decoded in this 1901 book: “Wr r ty gg r 9” means “Where are they going for No. 9”; “Is tt exa tr et” means “Is that extra there yet?”
  • Disclaimer: the remark above was not intended to senselessly valorize an outmoded technology. “I’ve heard many a nostalgist say there was something more, well, effortful, and therefore poetic, in the old system of walking for miles to a record shop only to discover they’d just sold out. People become addicted to the weights and measures of their own experience: We value our own story and what it entails. But we can’t become hostages to the romantic notion that the past is always a better country.”
  • For the second time, the avant-garde company Elevator Repair Service is mounting a theatrical adaptation of The Sound and the Fury: “Even if Faulkner isn’t your thing, or if confusion of characters and time frames aren’t, either, it’s important to see the piece, if only to understand how scripts work—and how they transform the actors in the space of the stage.”
  • In which Ottessa Moshfegh tries mayonnaise: “Mayonnaise, to my mother, was like peanut butter to the French: disgusting, uncivilized, and impossible to find. On a scale of respectability, a jar of mayonnaise came in somewhere between a vat of pig fat and one of those plastic pails of Marshmallow Fluff.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm

June 3, 2014 | by


An illustration for George du Maurier’s Trilby, serialized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1894

In a recent Science of Us post, Melissa Dahl investigates the evolution of the exclamation mark. As one grammarian tells her, “Exclamation points are becoming the standard after salutations and happy or eager statements such as ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ ... It almost seems mandatory in e-mail.”

While few can deny that an unexclamated text reads as terse today, the overuse of the exclamation mark dates to far before the dawn of Seinfeld, let alone the proliferation of electronic communiques. Most recently, I was struck by George du Maurier’s promiscuous use of punctuation in his 1894 novel, Trilby

To the extent that anyone talks about Trilby today, it is usually because the book was the genesis of the term svengali; because said Svengali is an egregiously anti-Semitic caricature; or just because the author was the grandfather of Daphne. A century ago, it was known for its depiction of bohemian Paris and the portrait of its title character, a sexually liberated but pure-hearted Englishwoman who falls prey to the sinister machinations of Svengali.

Svengali—who does indeed practice mesmerism, as well as speaking a really-hard-to-read German-accented French that is written out phonetically—spends a lot of the novel monologuing in a villainous manner: Read More »

What We’re Loving: Strokes, Sex Appeal, Splenetic Surfers

March 28, 2014 | by


Emmanuelle Devos in a still from Just a Sigh, 2013.

If you saw American Hustle with your parents, as I did last Christmas, you will have noticed something that set it apart from pretty much every Hollywood movie of the last few years. I refer to the sex appeal of Amy Adams. Her hotness was a blast from the past, and not just because of the disco décolletage. For some reason, Hollywood doesn’t really do sexy these days, at least not in female roles—and certainly not compared to the French. Just think of Lola Créton in Goodbye, First Love or Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color—both playing teenagers with a soulful teenage horniness that’s taboo in American movies—or Marion Cotillard as a double amputee in Rust and Bone, or best and most recent of all, Emmanuelle Devos, the fifty-year-old star of Just a Sigh, who’s never looked better (which is saying something), and who smolders so intensely for Gabriel Byrne that the poor guy just sort of disappears off the screen. Until the actual love scenes, you hardly notice: this is a one-woman show. —Lorin Stein

Rodrigo de Souza Leão died shortly after the publication of All Dogs Are Blue, an autobiographical novel detailing his time in a Rio de Janeiro mental asylum. Souza Leão uses a kind of language his schizophrenia has taught him, creating a poetry that’s at one moment absurd—his two recurring hallucinations are Rimbaud and Baudelaire—and the next heartbreakingly self-aware. (“Is it the kiss of Judas? Will I betray my father in my madness?”) It’s an innovative, original book, though not an easy one to read. But then, as Souza Leão writes, “The truth can be a sloppy invention and still convince everyone.” —Justin Alvarez

When will spring arrive‽ Isn’t all this cold weather lovely though⸮ I love it—I hope it never ends؟ If you’ve been feeling that we have a lack of punctuation marks at our disposal—we don’t have a way to represent, for instance, an ironic question—then why not revive the obsolete irony mark⸮ It has a long history of failure in mainstream typography that you can read all about in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston. But if you believe that to point out irony to an intelligent reader would defeat its purpose wholesale, perhaps you would prefer the percontation point, which was invented by the English printer Henry Denham in the nineteenth century—it’s meant as a visual indication of a rhetorical question. Or the interrobang, which combines the feeling of the exclamation point with the function of the question mark. Or my favorite, the love point, used to denote deep affection. —Anna Heyward

Geoff Dyer was not killed, or even, apparently, seriously impaired by his recent stroke, and he writes buoyantly about the experience for the London Review of Books. Ten days into his new life in Venice Beach, his vision went weird and his coordination abandoned him, and he stumbled about half-blind in perfect weather. His is a kind of coming-of-age story that reminds you how many such stories make up a life, whatever your age. —Zack Newick Read More »


Two Shades of Wine, and Other News

September 26, 2013 | by


  • “Wine plays an important role in Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve always had a penchant for good wine, so combining two of my passions … was a natural extension of the series.” The foremost entrepreneur of our times, E. L. James, is launching a line of wines. Soon to be received by anyone who has the ill fortune to invite me to dinner.
  • This banned-books tote—which features fifty banned titles—is a striking reminder that goes beyond Banned Books Week.
  • University of Toronto professor David Gilmour has, not shockingly, stirred up controversy by stating in an interview that he is “not interested in teaching books by women.” And, “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.” And, just in case that wasn’t clear, “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys … F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys.”
  • Lolita, Twilight, and eight other best-sellers that were initially rejected by publishers.
  • What hath the Romans wrought? A concise history of the hashtag.