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Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,364 ratings  ·  263 reviews
From ancient Greece to the Internet—via the Renaissance, Gutenberg, and Madison Avenue—Shady Characters exposes the secret history of punctuation.

A charming and indispensable tour of two thousand years of the written word, Shady Characters weaves a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography. Whether investigating the asterisk (*) and dagger
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by W. W. Norton Company
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Average rating 3.95  · 
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 ·  1,364 ratings  ·  263 reviews

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Dustin Kurtz
Aug 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
Impossible to read this one and not find yourself exhausting friendships with a million "did you know ...?" conversations about, say, the manicule or the ampersand. Impossible, that is, if you have friends. Which I don't. At least, not anymore. A good book, is the point.
Nov 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, reviewed
This book was both a joy to read and quite enlightening. Not only was the writing engaging, but it did a wonderful job integrating the story of these various symbols into the context of the wider world of human affairs. While certainly intended for a popular audience, Houston took his task very seriously, drawing upon an enormous range of sources to tell the story of these symbols to the tune of ~67 pages of references. Houston tells the history of these symbols in a very economical way, not fal ...more
Al Bità
Jun 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
The histories of a number of punctuation, symbol and other typographical marks used over the centuries is delightfully written about and beautifully illustrated in Houston’s book. The publishers have added to the pleasure by having the text printed in two colours (black for the text, and a kind of ochre for all the typographic and other indicative marks which pop up all throughout the text).

It might surprise some readers just how ancient some of the most common punctuation marks have been around
May 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: font/typography nerds & lovers of arcane trivia
Shelves: 2016
A book for font/typography/punctuation nerds. The book jumps around through history, trying to pinpoint the origin of various marks. Some chapters succeed better than others. Overall, somewhat interesting, but probably of most interest to those that already have an interest in (or obsession with) typographical marks. Or maybe of interest if you'll be appearing on Jeopardy & need some additional arcane trivia at your fingertips. ...more
Emma Sea
When I started this book I was confident in my use of hyphens and en- and em- dashes. Having finished it, I have no idea what to do with the seven (!) current punctuation marks comprising horizontal lines.

Todd Stockslager
Sep 17, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: other
Review title: History, punctuated

You don't see books on the history of punctuation marks every day, or at least you don't see people reading them, which may explain why I was able to buy this at the Half Price Books clearance sale for $2. But if you are a word nerd, Houston tells how words, sentences and paragraphs in your favorite books came to have those funny marks. Whole he occasionally gives examples of usage, this isn't a grammar or usage book, so if you are looking for that look elsewhere
Jun 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Another great Goodreads first reads win!

I think I am rather naive when it comes to history, or I lack imagination. Mostly, I am always taken by surprise to discover that writing in the computer age or the internet age, or whatever age you want to call this, has many strong ties with the past. And by "the past" I mean, like, 5th-century-and-before past. As an editor, I usually write and edit with the "hidden characters" on. My screen is always sprinkled with tiny dots floating in midair between w
Stefan Kanev
Feb 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing
When I first stumbled upon this book, I thought it may be an answer to one of my deepest hopes – a detailed reference on various obscure punctuation and how to use it. I've always been fascinated about the darker corners of Unicode, and would love to go on an expedition to its seldomly-visited depths.

It turned out to be something different, and much better.

First and foremost, it's a beautifully typeset book. It's worth getting the hard cover and enjoying it as an object, not just as a text. It's
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language, nonfiction, 2018
I don’t even know where to start with how much I loved this book. I haven’t crushed so hard on a writer since my brother-in-law force-lent me A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
With 68 pages of endnotes, his writing brings to mind the journal articles I have to read for grad school, but unlike the dry majority of these offerings, Houston’s scholarly writing is incredibly fun to read.
I smiled so much as I read this. I wish I’d read it on my kindle, because there would have been loads of
Plot: A
Writing: A
Vocabulary: A+
Level: Easy
Rating: G
Worldview: descriptive

I expected to be bored if somewhat enlightened about the family tree of punctuation. To my surprise, this engaging rabbit trail through history ended up being one of the best books I've read all year! Author Keith Houston presents scholarly material with a conversational tone accessible even to school-age readers. Along the way he chronicles the history of writing and how technology made an impact. But the real-life anecdot
Kristen Smith
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
This book was simply wonderful, but I must add a caveat, it is not a book for the faint of heart. If you love history, learning new information about the world around you, love trivia, and were someone who often wondered what that little paragraph sign was in word documents then you will enjoy this book very much. But I warn you - right from the outset, you will start walking around spouting off tidbits of information and saying words like pilcrow and folks will wonder about you. Keith Houston i ...more
On the plus side, I learned why paragraphs are indented--and what used to occupy that space. On the minus side, the author padded every point with irrelevancies or distractions. Trying to be funny, he often came off as silly.

In sum, I learned a lot. But it's not a great read; certainly nowhere near "Confessions of a Comma Queen."
Stephie Williams
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book takes a look at certain symbols used in punctuation and their typographical uses. It is by no means an exhaustive account of all such symbols. It concentrates on a small selection in comparison with all the symbols currently in use. I feel he selected his “shady characters” based on what he found to be the most interesting as far as their invention, history, and uses.

Some of the characters were: the pilcrow (¶) which today is mainly found in word processor programs when you click on t
Oct 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
I virtually never say this of anything, but this book was too short! Houston is a good writer—efficient, well organized, witty without becoming annoying—and I’d happily read another few hundred pages by him on more characters, or further typographic matters.
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was great! From Cicero to ARPAnet and more, Houston covers the history of punctuation with knowledge and humor. Definitely recommended.
Jun 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads, reviewed

orators needed some indication of where to, at least, take a breath. So began the use of punctuation and the development of its rules.

The first two sentences of this review shows a very early form of writing, actually the all upper case primarily in the Greek because that was the only case they had
Katie (wife of book)
May 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is any language nerd's dream...a whole book dedicated to lesser known, forgotten, and unusual punctuation! Houston is obviously passionate about his subject and it shows through his informal and jaunty tone throughout Shady Characters.
The reader is taken from the Ancient World, Medieval England, the advertising boom of the 1960's, and the dawn of the email in the 1970's. There are many surprises and amusing facts - such as the large variety of dashes, and how many of these ornate marks
Spencer Borup
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This was, to be honest, my first enthusiastic foray into nonfiction. AND I LOVED EVERY SECOND OF IT.

SHADY CHARACTERS is a meticulously researched and cuttingly sharp look at the evolution of peculiar symbols like the pilcrow, @ symbol, hashtag (octothorpe), & "quotation marks."*

*among others.

However, as the author Keith Houston discovered in the afterword, this book is really more of an exploration of the development of written language and its stylizing and the evolution of printing. Which was
Nov 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Serious fun. Serious fun. Very dorky, yes, but a great read. I couldn't put this book down. Now I know what to call the "paragraph sign," the "pound sign" and the "pointing hand" (pilcrow, octothorpe, and manicule, respectively) and why they are what they are. A whole chapter on the hyphen, and a separate one on the dash! Great times! Plus an explanation of linotype and the horrors of optical typesetting! Read this, and you will understand about half the Auto-Correct settings in your word proces ...more
Aug 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: language
This is a nifty little book. Especially if you are a nerd like me. Each chapter covers a punctuation mark. The book is designed to be read in any order and the chapters are pretty short, around ten pages. Each chapter explains a bit about the mark and then goes through its history from ancient through modern times. I found this to be an interesting read and recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of language and/or writing.
Derek James Baldwin
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Not bad by any means but halfway through I felt that I'd learned as much as I was ever likely to want to know about the subject and decided to end it there. So I will never find out the history of the maniscule. ...more
This originally appeared at The Irresponsible Reader.
When the quotation mark does succeed in sparking debate, it attracts mild tut-tutting rather than genuine outrage. Though there is transatlantic disagreement over whether to enclose speech in ‘single’ or “double” quotes, for instance, it comes nowhere near the level of hand-wringing inspired by the semicolon, whose tricky usage has driven it almost to extinction. Neither does the occasional unnecessary “use” of quotation marks induce the h
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“[Erasmus] opined that the conscientious reader should ‘observe occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, cleverly contrived or well adapted arguments, brilliant flashes of style, adages, example, and pithy remarks worth memorizing,’ and that ‘such passages should be marked by an appropriate little sign.’”

I read this delightful book on my phone, so the design of my marginalia is sadly lacking, and little that I write is ever “appropriate,” anyway. However, I am thinking of aurochs
Jul 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I love this book. It is occasionally a bit self-indulgent in its little flourishes (like sometimes the orthography and style of the book will change to match something that the book is talking about), but the deep dives into these random pieces of punctuation are simply fascinating.

There's also a decent depth of information in this book from a "tech" perspective — interestingly, this book cites the Python 2.7.1 documentation for the use of # to indicate comments. It seems that the author's day j
Chris Kelly
Aug 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A book about the history of (obscure and not so obscure) punctuation marks? Believe me, it's not as boring as you might think at first. This book is an interesting look into the origins of some of the punctuation marks you use every day ( and even some you might never have heard of). You won't think of writing the same way again once you've finished. ...more
Sai Gayatri Vemuri
Oct 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
I thought I had another half-book of reading left, turns out those are the Acknowledgments.

A fun read, lots of information, delightfully chronological. A history of punctuation is exactly what's missing from your bookshelf, go pick this up!
Aug 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Splendid little book, deeply researched and referenced - and it's always refreshing to read an author who's prepared to say "lots of cute theories, but this remains origin unknown". ...more
Sep 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult, non-fiction
Interesting topic, and just the right blend of academic scholarship and accessible language
Sep 23, 2020 rated it liked it
I mostly enjoyed this recent "impulse request" from the library. I Googled the name of what I now know is a pilcrow, and learned about this book. If you want to know more about the history of punctuation and typographical symbols, look no further. It takes you from the dawn of written communication (no punctuation!) to our present day struggle of trying to find a universally accepted irony mark. ...more
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics, history
G¶#â€-_:@&>¡Â£;*¿ †‡»/|' Interesting!

Breezy, light and filled with historic digressions (ie: the life of Cicero and his scribe Tiro), this is a gracious look at the evolution of (mostly English) punctuation. It's quite fascinating to learn of the role technology had to play in adoption of various conventions. For example, it wasn't until the 8th century that a rounded lower case was introduced into the Latin alphabet (pp13) - those Roman scribes were chiselers and it was far easier to carv
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