Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

Shady Characters The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

This is a fascinating non-fiction book about several of the ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) punctuation marks and symbols that are in more or less common use every day. My husband observed that he knew I would love the book, as I have a fondness for minutiae.

After a short introduction, the author gives us chapters on the Pilcrow (¶), which is used to introduce paragraphs (especially now, in the guts of various word-processing programs), the Interrobang (‽), which is used to indicate both an exclamatory statement and a questioning statement at the same time (alas, the Android keyboards do not support this useful mark), the Octothorpe (#), which was given new life first, with the touch-tone phone dial, and secondly, by Twitter), the Ampersand (&), the At Symbol (@), which was given new life with the invention of Email), the Asterisk and Dagger (* and †); the Asterisk is on Android, but the Dagger is not), the Hyphen (­−), which in ASCII is actually a Minus Sign; if one is deep into typography or printing, there is a difference), the Dash (–, the En Dash, and —, the Em Dash), the Manicule (☞), used to point out interesting text (and also not on Android keyboards), and Quotation Marks (“ ”), and their use (and misuse). For all of these marks (with the exception of the Interrobang, invented in 1962, the author gives the history, going back to the days of papyrus and stone engravings and meandering through medieval manuscripts through the invention of moveable type printing to the present day. The last chapter is on Irony and Sarcasm; despite efforts to invent some sort of Sarcasm Symbol, the closest we have to one at the present day is the winking emoticon ( 😉 ).

I very much enjoyed this book, and did not realize until reading it how difficult it is to type some of the more useful symbols (to type the Interrobang and the Manicule for this review, I had to look up the ASCII code, and as noted, Android does not support the Interrobang, the Manicule, or the Dagger. (I do not know about Iphones; to be honest, I really don’t care. Even if the Iphone has the Interrobang and Manicule and Dagger on its keyboards, I have no intention of switching from Android to the Dark Side.) I recommend this book to all who are interested in matters of punctuation, and I apologize if any of the symbols that I have noted in this review do not show up on all viewers and browsers.

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