punctuation NOLA

Punctuation fun: add commas and periods and stir

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.

Image of punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner (right) from Adam J. Calhoun’s article.

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?

Returning to the breathtaking opening paragraph of Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night.

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.

punctuation NOLA








4 thoughts on “Punctuation fun: add commas and periods and stir

  1. What a very interesting view of the impact commas, periods and such have on a body of words and content! So simple yet so powerful. I very much enjoyed this.

    Yesterday in my linguistics course we spoke about scare quotes, as used with the single quotation marks, mostly used by companies today proclaiming their power over a competitor.

    1. Thank you, Charlotte, for stopping by and for your kind words.I was surprised myself at how the same punctuation can lead to quite different text.

      Scare quotes, yikes! The name itself is frightening. Perhaps it could inspire a Halloween costume.

  2. I actually *had* missed the Medium piece, and I’m so glad you shared it here because WOW! That is seriously cool! I love your thoughts on it too. I want to do this with some poetry and see what it turns up in contrast with prose (if any).

    1. Annie, what a fabulous idea. I think exploring the punctuation of poetry would be even more fun, and then filling in as I did a lot of fun. One thing that was neglected in the original piece was the paragraph break, which matters much in the rhythm of prose — and of course even more in that of poetry.

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