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Posts Tagged ‘punctuation’

The Most Mysterious Hyphen in Literature, and Other News

December 14, 2015 | by

“The Voyage of the Pequod,” 1956. One of twelve literary maps based on British and American literature produced by the Harris-Seybold Company.

  • Punctuation was once the stuff of radical experimentation; today it tends to be the site of tired grammatical debates, the kind that feel antiquated a mere decade or so after they first got people riled up. David Crystal’s book Making a Point hopes to assuage our punctuation anxiety: “In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, ‘camel case’ (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system … A 2007 Daily Mail article titled ‘I h8 txt msgs’ had declared that ‘SMS vandals’ were ‘pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed ‘innovations’ of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.”
  • Melville must’ve been an intimate of punctuation anxiety; Moby-Dick has a hyphen that seems to disappear and reappear at will. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Did he intend to put it there at all? “Thomas Tanselle writes that Melville’s brother, Allan, made a last-minute change to the title of the American edition. ‘[Melville] has determined upon a new title,’ his brother wrote. ‘It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title … Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book.’ The American edition went to press, hyphen intact, despite the fact that the whale within was only referred to with a hyphen one time … It’s still unclear whether Melville, who didn’t use a hyphen inside the book, chose a hyphen for the book’s title or whether his brother punctuated the title incorrectly. Whether you chalk it up to typographical error, long-obsolete custom or authorial intention, the hunt for the true story behind Moby-Dick’s hyphen continues.”
  • Living life on the Gregorian calendar is okay—the days go by, the weeks go by, the months go by, the years go by. Break up the tedium by overlaying some other markers on your worldly existence: by reading fiction, say. “Memorable novels have a way of affixing a secondary story to themselves, a plot that touches tangentially, if at all, upon the plot of the book. Sometimes you recall a novel chiefly for the circumstances under which it was absorbed … It’s one of the keenest and least replaceable pleasures I know—the sense, native to a capacious novel, of existing simultaneously inside two calendars. One plot steadily proceeds and it is called Your Life; it’s the old, ongoing, errand-filled business of your datebook. The other plot is new; it’s called The Novel You’re Reading, and it unfolds with its own errands, its own weather and its own zodiac.”
  • Today in cover judging: hats off to our art editor, Charlotte Strick, whose design for the reissue of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is among the New York Timestwelve best covers of the year.
  • China’s approach to film ratings (it doesn’t have them) and censorship (plenty of that, though) reflects a nervous ideological tension—and it results in some programming choices that feel frankly bizarre to a Western audience. “Its constraints on what may appear on screen represent a laundry list of the state’s anxieties. Content must not ‘endanger’ China’s unity, security or honor. It also should not ‘twist’ history, feature explicit sex or gambling, advocate ‘the supremacy of religion’ or ‘meticulously describe fortune-telling.’ Playing up violence is prohibited, in theory … A Chinese film released in 2006, Curse of the Golden Flower, was given a rating in America that required those under seventeen to be accompanied by an adult because of its violent scenes. But these scenes were left uncut when it was screened in China. Viewers were given no warning about them. On TV The Patriot (Yue Fei), a popular historical drama, commonly features long fights with bloody swords, arrows through the heart and dripping corpses. It currently airs on one channel in the early afternoon.”

The Journey of the Dancing Triangle Man, and Other News

November 2, 2015 | by

Minya Diez-Dührkoop, Dance costume for “Technik” (detail), 1924, black-and-white positive on silver gelatin paper.

  • Suspense, mystery, confusion, a certain contemplative je ne sais quoi … you can use ellipses for just about anything these days. Try ending your e-mails with them for a much-needed injection of professional ambiguity. And remember their roots: “Penny dreadful scribblers and yellow journalists adopted the mark wholeheartedly, entwining its brand with high melodrama, cheap commercialism, and camp … Adorno, noting the dots’ prevalence in comic books and trashy romance, argued that a ‘hack … must depend on typography to simulate … an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something [he] does not have’ … Some ellipses feel hammy and overwrought. But others allude to charged material with superlative restraint (as in Fitzgerald or Joyce). They can be gently mysterious … They convey the endless rovings of consciousness.”
  • Today in rediscovered Expressionist dance costumes: there are these, which look to have come from a very forward-thinking children’s sci-fi featurette. Two dancers from Hamburg, Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, designed the costumes in the 1920s. “The dancers created twenty full-body costumes for performances between 1919 and 1924, all accompanied by avant-garde music, often composed by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt.” In 1924, Schulz shot Holdt and then herself, thus ensuring that their avant-garde costumes were tainted with bad memories and left in storage for many decades.
  • As the notion of the “bookless library” wends its way from cheap joke to reality, James Gleick asks: Whither the library? “The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them … A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly.”
  • The landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church lived in a mansion called Olana, which doubled as “a 3-D landscape artwork with more than five miles of carriage roads.” But what of its craftsmanship? A tour of Olana leaves one with more questions than answers: “We would learn that what was strange about this window, which appeared to be stained glass, was that its diamond-patterned grille was sagging at the edges; it was made of paper. ‘Church cared more about appearances than authenticity,’ we were informed. From the hall we filed into a narrow private study, where the walls were bordered with a script I thought was Arabic, but when I asked its meaning, I was told that it was nonsense Church invented, because he liked the way it looked … There was an empty easel with a palette; shelves of art supplies; a painting by the artist’s mentor, dim; a case of carved-stone artifacts collected on a trip to South America. ‘Some of those objects are authentic, others made for tourists,’ said the guide. ‘Church didn’t care.’ ”
  • Most people went to Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage to dance. Bill Bernstein went to take pictures. His work stands as a vibrant document of the disco era, which he remembers for its inclusiveness: “On a typical night of shooting, Bernstein would arrive at a club at around eleven p.m. or midnight, never drinking, just wandering the dance floor and lounge areas looking for interesting subjects. ‘I would just sort of try to keep my eyes open, and stay there until I felt like I couldn’t do any more, or I was exhausted,’ he says. ‘The speakers were gigantic and the room would vibrate. Between the room vibrating with the noise and the lighting, which was constantly flickering and moving, after about four hours, I was drained.’ ”

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

Miss_Ethel_Wakefield,_a_Western_Union_telegraph_PBX_operator_8d30850v

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

trilby

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 »