Last week my twitter timeline was buzzing with a thought-provoking Medium article by Adam J Calhoun on the punctuation in novels.
Inspired by these visual poems that result from extracting the words from classic works of literature, he compared the punctuation patterns of some his favorite books. Two end members were Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.
Not surprisingly, the former was period-dominated and the latter comma- and semicolon-dominated, with dash of parentheses. Both have a fair number of question marks as well.
He didn’t stop there.
There are great statistics in the post, like the frequency of each punctuation mark and the number of words per sentence. After he’d written the code to transform text into a sequence of commas, semicolons, exclamation points, quotation marks, and parentheses, the delight in comparing various novels from different authors and time periods (and even the beginning and ending of the same novel as shown on his blog) was probably hard to resist.
Do go read the Medium piece, if somehow you managed to miss it.
The article isn’t just fascinating, the resulting punctuation sequences are truly beautiful.
They look like an alien language of sorts.
Style contributes undoubtedly to the punctuation maps. That includes convention: whether one use single- or double-apostrophes for quotations in fiction or dashes. And language itself matters, as commas are more common in Spanish and French than in English. One wonders about non-fiction and technical writing. In the latter, clarity aims to prevail over style—message over form.
But the punctuation sequences made me think about what isn’t there: the words.
Punctuation provides the guardrails for words, the traffic signs for the circulation of written language. But how determining is it?
When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who, as you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
Have I mentioned how much I love this book?
Stripping away the words we have:
, , , , , , , . , . — — .
The marks left on wet beach-sand by a small bird hopping.
A hidden message. A vessel for words.
Using the same punctuation we have:
It was a dark day filled with portents, omens, sealed closed to those who rushed past without seeing, but open to those who wouldn’t turn away, who couldn’t be distracted, at the all the signs, the clues, at all that still remained to be unveiled. For she already knew, it was the end. The story was already told—in strokes of punctuation—that echoed as drumbeats in the silence.
But we also have:
Take a basket of apples, a bowl of walnuts, the gratings of nutmeg to dust the surface two times over, four cinnamon sticks, the zest and juice of a ripe lemon, still warm from the tree, two fists of crinkled cranberries, and three glass-fulls of brown sugar. This is key for that which you seek, along with the freshly churned butter and flour ground from last winter’s wheat. By baking a pie that is clear and true—only the sincerest ingredients will suffice—the crone may grant your request.
And even (stripping down the last example):
Take apples, walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon, the zest and juice of a lemon, dried cranberries, optional, and brown sugar. Also required are butter, flour and a pinch of salt. Follow the recipe—the one hand-printed on the scrap of parchment—you will have a pie.
The tone is completely different for the same sequence of punctuation. Even the rhythm is different, though we pause and stop at the same points. (None come close to the original, needless to say.)
So punctuation is more flexible than traffic signals, telling us to stop and to yield.
Punctuation and words live in a symbiosis conditioned by style and content. It is the speed at which we think. It is what we choose to see.
Punctuation interlocks with our words to carry ideas, like a series of locks to channel water, like sheepdogs herding thoughts through complicated terrain.
To close, a New Orleans traffic sign.