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

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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 (†)--which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible--or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet, Keith Houston draws on myriad sources to chart the life and times of these enigmatic squiggles, both exotic (¶) and everyday (&).

From the Library of Alexandria to the halls of Bell Labs, figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Vladimir Nabokov, and George W. Bush cross paths with marks as obscure as the interrobang (‽) and as divisive as the dash (--). Ancient Roman graffiti, Venetian trading shorthand, Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue round out an ever more diverse set of episodes, characters, and artifacts.

Richly illustrated, ranging across time, typographies, and countries, Shady Characters will delight and entertain all who cherish the unpredictable and surprising in the writing life.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published September 24, 2013

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About the author

Keith Houston

7 books75 followers
Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters, The Book, and the forthcoming Empire of the Sum. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Mental Floss, BBC Culture, and on Time.com. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his family.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 304 reviews
Profile Image for Dustin Kurtz.
67 reviews26 followers
August 13, 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.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,885 followers
December 30, 2022
Entertaining history of a variety of punctuation marks and how they developed and became standardised (not just eg the dash and exclamation, but also manicule, pilcrow, interrobang). I mean, either you're interested in this stuff or you aren't. I particularly liked the stuff on efforts to create new marks. The author gives a lot of space to the interrobang, which really hasn't caught on, and also has an intriguing essay on the efforts to create a sarcasm mark, which people have been attempting for a couple of hundred years. (In this book written 2013, he mentions the tilde in passing as just one of the failed attempts at a sarcasm mark, which, oh wow what an ~oracle~. /s

AKA, in the nine years since writing, sarcasm punctuation has made remarkable strides. I kind of want an update covering sPoNgEbOb sArCaSm also. And I'm definitely surnaming a character Pilcrow at some point.
Profile Image for Mike.
478 reviews370 followers
November 23, 2015
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 falling down any academic rabbit holes. Each chapter, which highlighted one particular symbol, was short enough to consume in one sitting, making it easy to put down and pick up the book as needed.

I think the most insightful thing I gleaned from this book was how much technology has influenced human language. When everything was written down there was little to no uniformity in terms of symbols and their meanings. Typically a center of learning (such as the Library of Alexandria) would introduce some technique that would slowly disperse across the greater Mediterranean area. The advent of the printing press brought a level of standardization to language, but also a winnowing. Printers were limited by the letters and symbols they cut so some things had to go. Symbols were lost, others re-purposed and life went on.

As much as the printing press limited what symbols made it into printed material, it was nothing like the symbol holocaust that was the typewriter. Where a printer could cut some custom pieces as needed, a widespread commercial typewriter solidified what symbols would be carried forward into the brave new world, limiting them to what could fit within the typewriter's limited space. This extended into the computer age, as well, as computer keyboards mimicked those of type writers.

The most interesting winnowing of symbols due to this technological constraint was the dash. There were apparently a whole bunch of different dash lengths used for different effects that have now all been reduced to the simple -. But at the same time the widespread popularity of novels and their writing style necessitated some mark that would denote a character speaking, giving rise to the popularity of the quotation marks; technology and social trends giveth and taketh from our language.

It was also fascinating to see how some symbols have changed over time, both in terms of their use (such as how the # has been from denoting pounds to tweeting) and their form (the quotation marks started existence two thousand years ago looking like >). Humanity has shown remarkable flexibility and innovation when it came to representing some non-textual intention, though sometimes it took a REALLY long time. Heck, just putting spaces between words took quite a while. The development of a line break and indented line effectively killed off the pilcrow and for a while quotation marks were made in the margin of a page.

And don't think that we've reached some end point in the development of the written word. Things are always in flux, and with the advent of cheap and widespread computing power there is no reason to think we aren't on the verge of a symbol revolution. Want an interrobang? You can get that. Want a manicule? Not sure why, but you can do that too. But language can also be a stubborn thing, with new symbols facing an enormous institutional and usage barriers.

In any event, this was a swell reading experience. Houston peppers his accounts with witty insights, humorous anecdotes, and plenty of self awareness ([In a footnote] "In honor of their [asterisk and dagger] role as footnote reference marks, I plan to fill this chapter with numerous lengthy and entirely tangential footnotes so as to take full advantage." ). If you love the written word (which, I would hope most people on this site do), this was a wonderfully illuminating work that will give you a greater appreciation for what we have today.
Profile Image for Al Bità.
377 reviews39 followers
June 23, 2019
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; and their histories of each are fascinating in their own right. Houston covers this selection of such markings in eleven chapters, the last of which resurrects past suggestions for the use of symbols to denote Irony and Sarcasm, but which so far have not been taken up in any big way. Two which can still be seen today are the manicule (☛) and the pilcrow (¶), while the interrobang (‽) seems to have made some headway. Perhaps some of the more esoteric marks discussed will make a form of comeback in the new digitalised platforms we enjoy today on our computers…

Recommended for anyone interested in typography, punctuation and graphic design. Read and enjoy!
Profile Image for Jayna Baas.
Author 3 books139 followers
March 18, 2022
I’m not sure how to rate this book, so I’m not going to. I really, really wish I could give it five stars. And I might if not for two instances of vulgarity that, if encountered in fiction, would make me stop reading. Both instances were in the context of quotes, but the anecdotes that included them were unnecessary to begin with. For those who want to know, these occurrences are on pages 19–20 and the footnote on pages 65–66. There were also a few other instances of profanity or crudity, so consider yourself warned.

Now that that’s out of the way—what a fascinating book. Houston’s dry, wry style makes this an engaging read (well, as engaging as a book on punctuation can be). I knew a little of the information already, but I didn’t even know the names of some of the symbols, much less their history. Pilcrows and octothorpes and interrobangs—it was a fun, tongue-in-cheek experience for any lover of linguistic trivia. ANDIAMSOGLADWEUSEWORDSPACINGNOW. I kept stopping to report captivating details (at least, I thought they were captivating) to the people around me. I appreciated that the book honestly admitted the gaps in knowledge on this subject rather than trying to make theories into fact. The tone Houston took toward early Christianity was not to my taste, but it’s a secular book, so I didn’t really expect anything else, and to be fair, a lot of the “Christianity” he referenced was not all that Christian in nature. With the above caveats, I think most word nerds would be fascinated by this book. It’s just not one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

(And just a week or two after I finished it, I happened into a conversation at church about pilcrows, of all things. What are the odds?)
Profile Image for Stacia.
825 reviews101 followers
May 15, 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.
Profile Image for Todd Stockslager.
1,642 reviews26 followers
June 24, 2019
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. And it isn't exhaustive, but looks at some of the more interesting ones that by name alone don't even register as punctuation: pilcrows, octothorpes, and manicules

As it turns out, punctuation history is both important and interesting. Word separation, by spaces, periods, and commas enabled broader literacy, individual study and silent reading, as described in Masters of the Word which I recently read. Houston covers some of the same territory, noting that quotation marks arose from the Christian desire to be as exact and accurate as possible in attributing speech to Jesus. Christianity both drove and benefitted from the innovations in writing, printing, and punctuation in many ways taken for granted.

In fact, so much of the history of punctuation is taken for granted and not documented that Houston often cites some really obscure references and still must resort to speculation or assessment of undocumented statements of origin. Punctuation is so prevalent and seems so fixed that it is treated as just furniture in the house in which words live, and its origins and evolution are assumed or ignored. For example the simple "number sign", "pound sign", or "hash" as it is known in Europe (#). Officially known as the octothorpe, it apparently derives originally from the Latin libra (scales) pondo (to weigh). The two words individually began to be applied to weights, pondo becoming "pounds" in English, and the abbreviation for libra (lb) became the abbreviation for pound. When written rapidly with the then-common tittle, a line just above the letters of an abbreviation to indicate that the abbreviated letters represented a longer word, "lb" gradually took on the now-uniform # shape (try it yourself, and see the example Houston includes from a sample of Isaac Newton's writing, on p. 43). Houston also spends quite some time on the origin of the official name octothorpe for the symbol; another odd punctuation name "pilcrow" is the backwards P that is used by word processing software to represent paragraph spacing.

Introduced into the history of writing throughout various stages of history when writing meant hand writing on paper or parchment it was easy for punctuation marks to be born, evolve and exist above, below, or in the margins of the written material. But with the introduction of mechanical printing with Gutenberg, then the typewriter, then photo-set printing, it became necessary to standardize the shape, location, and usage of punctuation. Houston documents how these shifts changed, established, and in some cases threatened punctuation. His prime example is that of the hypen or dash: he gives seven different lengths of this seemingly most simple mark, each of which at one time had a specific purpose and usage, now replaced in most usages on first typewriters and then computer character sets by just two lengths which are used to create or replace the original seven.

Is our language and printing any poorer for not having seven lengths of hypen? Perhaps not, but Houston shows how the cultural, linguistic, and technical aspects of this seemingly arcane topic play out in our written heritage especially in the digital, internet age. His final chapter is on the history of attempts to establish a punctuation mark to represent irony or sarcasm, all of which failed until overtaken by the ever present emoticons or "smileys" which pepper online communication to carry the body language and nuances of irony lost on Twitter, messaging, and email. Punctuation may be invisible, but it isn't meaningless, and understanding its history makes us better users of the tools of language that make us human.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,176 reviews1,045 followers
February 2, 2014
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.

Profile Image for Stefan Kanev.
125 reviews207 followers
February 9, 2021
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 one of the greatest-looking books I own, and I do own a few.

Secondly, the writing is amazing. Devilishly clever at times, it reminded me of reading Zinsser. The author appears to be a software developer, and I really wish he'd quit writing code and start writing books full time (although I'm keen to read his code too ;)). I'll absolutely buy every book he publishes, and joyfully rave about it online.


It's a book about a number (let's say "12") of obscure punctuation characters, like the pilcrow (¶), the interrobang (‽) and the octothorpe (#). Each is covered in a separate chapter that tells an amazingly interesting story about its history. It's full of little curious details – ever wondered why paragraphs are indented in books?; why the keyboard has @ and #, but not some others?; where the name of the ampersand came from? – just get the book and read it to find out. The author appears to have done a lot of heavy-lifting to find out the origins of those characters, and there are 69 pages worth of references to back this up. He even takes on the occasional fact-check on Robert Bringhurst, which is a pretty bold move in my book (heh).

If you like typography, writing, text, or just reading a great book, you should absolutely get this one.
Profile Image for Neil R. Coulter.
1,055 reviews100 followers
May 1, 2021
Shady Characters was an absolute pleasure to read. People who write about language often fall into certain traps: condescending, arrogant, pedantic, name-dropping, forced humor. Somehow, Keith Houston avoids all of that and finds exactly the right tone in this book. He has great information to share, and he writes it in a fun, engaging, welcoming way.

☞ I highly recommend the book to anyone who loves history, language, and the history of language.

It might seem like writing about punctuation and typographical marks would be a rather narrow topic. But as Houston explains one kind of mark in each chapter, he opens a panorama of history and culture that is dizzyingly fascinating. We go back to the library of Alexandria, graffiti in Rome, medieval scribe annotations, Gutenberg’s obsessive line-justification, the first novels of Richardson and Fielding, Abraham Lincoln, twentieth-century journalism, and the huge influence of Christianity on all aspects of the written word. Each chapter looks at a different mark or symbol, and the stories are concise and always interesting—pilcrow,* interrobang (long one of my favorites; you know what it looks like, right‽), octothorpe,† ampersand, the @ symbol, asterisk and dagger,‡ hyphen, dash, manicule, quotation marks, and irony and sarcasm (of course~).

I loved this book. I will probably read it again and will definitely recommend it to my students and fellow editors.

* The symbol I think of as a paragraph marker.
† Now more commonly known as the “hashtag.”
‡ And the double dagger, and much more.
Profile Image for Blue.
1,121 reviews41 followers
September 1, 2021
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 words and pilcrows hanging off of the edges of paragraphs. I never thought these symbols came from long traditions of stone carving, writing, note-taking, nor that they had anything at all to do with the rise of Christianity, the librarians of Alexandria, and ARPANET.

Part history of writing and typing, part history of reading, thus taking notes, and part detective work in chasing elusive marks from before paper and pencil, Houston's Shady Characters is a fun page turner (for those who find that sort of thing exciting, of course). If you are ignorant about how people wrote and read way back when (what do you mean there were no spaces between words?! where is an interrobang when you need it?!) or merely curious about why the pilcrow is shaped the way it is (is it a reverse P for paragraph? nope!), this book will have many delicious tidbits for you.

Recommended for the naturally curious and grammar lovers.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews34 followers
May 10, 2016
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."
Profile Image for Josiah.
376 reviews23 followers
September 3, 2013
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 anecdotes are the best part! Why is the Bible divided into chapter & verse? What did ancient Pompeians grafiti on their walls? What is the 27th letter of the alphabet? Why is a toilet called the crapper? Read this book to find out!

This copy received for free courtesy of Goodreads Firstreads program, which in no way influenced this review.
9 reviews
August 30, 2013
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 is witty and his writing style is informative while engaging the reader in a journey into the nether regions of typography. But is so much more than that. I love knowing the why and the where of things and Shady Characters satisfies my curiosity and piques my interest. I highly recommend this easy to read but meaty text.
Profile Image for Emily.
1,713 reviews37 followers
February 10, 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 highlighted passages to share. My comments below have some of my favorite quotations I noted as I progressed through the book.
Without Houston’s clever, friendly style, this still would have been a fascinating book, using specific symbols and marks to trace the evolution of the written word. His writing made it a delight.
Profile Image for Jeff Bursey.
Author 12 books147 followers
January 26, 2022
Written with humour, examples, and many illustrations, this is a book for those who like typography and are keen to know the history of symbols used (now and in the past) in print materials. Houston has a nice way with words and seems to know his material; in that old phrase, he does wear his learning lightly, and goes from ancient greece to digitized manuscripts held by the british Library.

If you want to know the difference between the purpose of the many kinds of dashes and the hyphen, question how quotation marks arose, are curious about the manicule's past, want to learn the difference in uses for the Maltese cross versus the dagger, or wonder what's behind the pilcrow, the diple and the guillemet, this is only book needed. There are photos of old texts that use the precursors to what we have now and, for the most part, they are reproduced well enough, but some less successfully than others. All in all, an enjoyable book.
Profile Image for Stephie Williams.
382 reviews35 followers
September 8, 2017
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 the non-printing characters symbol which in LibreOffice is the pilcrow; the octothorpe or now days the hash tag (#), the asterisk (*) and dagger (†) of footnote fame, the ampersand (&), and the interesting manicule (☛,☞, a pointing hand which LibreOffice does not seem to have).

I only have a couple of comments. Page numbers are in brackets [] using Kindle pagination.

[9] “The emergence of Christianity a scant few decades after Jesus’s death would change the face of written language on a grand scale . . .” This is probably because it became almost the only form of book writing for centuries.

[19] Referring to the English sculptor Eric Gill with some rather risque work “calculated to bait the prurience of his day” I found these quite funny (at least to me) lines: “While working on the Stations [of the Cross] in the [Westminster] cathedral, a woman approached Gill to tell him that she did not think they were nice carvings; he responded, in characteristic form, that it was not a nice subject.”

I found the book intriguing and quite entertaining. Keith Houston wrote a very clever and enjoyable book. The most enjoyable book I have read for a couple of months.

If you are interested in or curious about how certain punctuation marks have come about and have been used through history, you probably should enjoy this book. It could also be of interested to those that like interesting things histories.

Profile Image for Neven.
Author 3 books414 followers
October 12, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Katherine.
623 reviews28 followers
October 6, 2013

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 ( Homer's time ) and the ox-turning style from line to line. One of the earliest developments was the use of dots between words like.this or maybe:this. In time, paragraphs were introduced and a punctuation, that I never knew had a name, the pilcrow, appeared. I'm glad to know its name and I like it--my early grade school writing had so many red pilcrows, those funny looking P's with lines through them like dollar signs, that I despaired of ever obtaining an "A" on an essay or, indeed, ever reach a point where my first submission would be accepted for a grade, without a rewrite. Oh, but the permutations that aggravating mark endured before reaching the form favored by those nuns of my training!

If, you, like me, detest that horrible car commercial with the robotic girl who sits in the driver's seat and crosses her fingers as she intones " hashtag, something or other" you will be happy to know that hashtag, which I will always call the pound sign--for the weight measurement, not the amount of pressure exerted on the keypad, has an alternate name--the octothorpe! And this will now be my new favorite word for the sign. But who developed it and who named it? Well, Bell Labs and touchtone phones played a part.

And how about Ampersand? Where did that sign come from? But isn't it a great word and what would A&P do without it?

How about an interrobang--I want one. When I call out Who finished the toilet paper, whilst sitting on the throne, it is more than a simple interrogatory remark--it is an exclamation of dismay at the same time. What better than an interrobang to express that combination of feelings?

Do you think @ was developed solely for email addresses? Think again! And where did asterisks come from--I prefer that term to star--or the dagger? How about hyphens and dashes--they are not the same thing and dashes come in many forms including en dash and em dash. Even Castle talked about fitting words to the page in a recent episode. Quotation marks as inverted commas? Doubled, of course!

But then there is the manicule--I love the manicule--it is used in rebus writing all the time. A hand with a pointing finger--maybe with a nice cuff or a ruffled flounce, perhaps with hand in a fist or index finger outlandishly enlongated. Originally, not printed in texts, handwritten and illuminated or printed on a press, but rather a device of the reader to mark out lines on which were made marginal notes. One I love is not a manicle at all but an adorable octopus whose tentacles embrace several lines, much like a bracket.

Throughout the book we meet the people who developed these devices that make reading so much easier but make writing a bit more difficult with its rules. We see how the coming of mass produced documents written by hand, copied and recopied, and eventually printed with presses of moveable type caused some of these symbols to be eliminated or changed to accommodate progress.
The advent of the typewriter and touch-tone keypads and, in time, the development of computer keyboards continue to impact punctuation and even vocabulary.

This book does not read fast--it is dry in places but for the most part is interesting and even humorous. The debate that has taken place for ages to arrive at some indication of irony and sarcasm in text is particularly fun. If language and writing interest you, this is a book you want right up there with Roget and Funk & Wagnall and Webster, among others. Looking for something new to bring up at your next cocktail party? Try the discussing the evolution of the octothorpe! Have fun!

This was a first reads giveaway that I will share with my teacher friends and that guy I met at last week's cocktail party--just kidding!
Profile Image for Katie.
617 reviews2 followers
May 14, 2019
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 are due to scribes being lazy. As you might expect, Shady Characters has images scattered across the text, all with helpful, manicule directed, captions underneath! I loved these images and it really brought the topic to life.
This book really does give you a new respect for punctuation and how simple it is. I loved seeing quotation marks from different countries, as well as the different drafts of the Interrobang and the various attempts at creating an irony mark.
My favourite chapter would have to be the Manicule one, as it's the only piece of punctuation that was for the reader and not the writer. The story of the demise of the Manicule and many of the other punctuation in this book are just as interesting as their creation. The podcast 99% Invisible has an episode featuring Keith Houston talking about this book, which is definitely worth a listen if you enjoyed Shady Characters! The episode is called "314 - Interrobang"
My one criticism were the many footnotes that appear mid-sentence. I found it a little jarring and it took me a while to start reading them after reaching the end of the sentence! The chapter on the hyphen was a little dry in parts, and I was never quite able to picture montype/linotype. However, overall, this book was a wonderful journey through history and language.
Profile Image for Spencer Borup.
327 reviews2 followers
October 22, 2016
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 okay, because I was fascinated by every single sentence. I also loved his use of humor (or "humour" as he would prefer me to write it), such as the following sentence: "...a string of short words is easier to justify than an interminable concatenation of polysyllabic sesquipedalianisms."

One thing that very much surprised me was the Christian religion's role in shaping modern punctuation. It seems that, in this instance, I finally have something that I can wholly unironically (which means I do not need use of ironics, the irony mark, or the SarcMark) thank the Lord for. Thanks, God!

...on second thought, maybe punctuation to show irony or sarcasm is in fact necessary. In this case, I'll defer to Houston's use of the emoticon ;)
Profile Image for Matthew.
305 reviews22 followers
November 28, 2013
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 processing program! Sweet!
Profile Image for Abigail.
510 reviews11 followers
June 9, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Kassy Chesire.
13 reviews3 followers
June 5, 2022
The subtitle of this book doesn’t quite do this one justice. Various marks have been integral in the development of written language, so it’s only logical that some of them were born during important eras for humanity. Ancient Greece, the dark ages, the Renaissance… turns out the spread of Christianity kind of depended on clear, standardized written communication. I found this one incredibly profound and full of fun facts that I couldn’t help but bring up.
Profile Image for Karen Eliot.
1,170 reviews19 followers
July 26, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Hobart.
2,282 reviews57 followers
August 20, 2019
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 howling apoplexy provoked by a simple misplaced apostrophe: whereas one English council was driven to institute an apostrophe “swear box,” café menu offers of “freshly baked ‘bagels,”’ “‘fresh fish,” and the like attract typically little more than a genteel ribbing. Unlike the “Oxford,” or serial, comma, quotation marks or “inverted commas” have never become a trending topic on Twitter, nor have they inspired a pop song in their name.

If that paragraph (from the chapter on quotation marks) or the fact that there's an entire chapter on quotation marks doesn't indicate it to you already, let me assure you that this is a book for grammar nerds (or would-be grammar nerds). For a little more flavor, the U. S. subtitle is "The Secret Life of Punc­tu­ation, Sym­bols, & Other Ty­po­graph­ical Marks," in the U.K., it's "Am­persands, In­ter­ro­b­angs and Other Ty­po­graph­ical Curi­os­it­ies."

The book is a historical survey of typography and language as manifested in particular punctuation marks, symbols, and other typographical marks. How they developed, how they've been used, and how they are used now. Specifically they are: the pilcrow (¶—you may have seen those around here); the interrobang (‽); the octothorpe (#); the ampersand (&); the @ symbol; the asterisk and dagger (* †); the hyphen (‐); the dash ( ‒ – — ―); the manicule (☞); quotation marks (‘ ’ “ ” ' ' " "); and the various attempts to come up with a symbol, typology, or punctuation denoting irony, sarcasm or humor.*

* And I really wish I knew how that paragraph was going to display cross-browsers, devices and in the various places I'll post this...

The afterward does a pretty good job of describing the book as a whole:
This book, as it turns out, is not just about unusual marks of punctuation, nor even punctuation in general. In following the warp and woof of individual shady characters throughout their lifetimes, it is the woven fabric of writing as a whole that emerges. And in today’s writing, the printed and electroluminescent characters we read on a daily basis and the scrawled handwriting that occupies the diminishing gaps between computer monitors, tablet computers, and smartphone screens, this history stares right back at us.

You don't have to read this book from cover to cover, you can dip in and read about a particular mark/symbol that you're curious about and move on. But the chapters do build on each other, and things that are discussed in (for example) the pilcrow chapter will come back for the manicule, the interrobang will inform the ironic/sarcasm indicators, and the octothorpe chapter will come back with the @ and dash chapters. So you'd do well to read it from cover to cover.

It's not just the individual marks/symbols that you learn about, but the hyphen chapter is a lesson (in a nutshell) on typography in books from Gutenberg to digital publishing. The asterisk and dagger chapter showed a surprising connection between those symbols (and their usage) and the Protestant Reformation, Luther in particular.

The origin alone of the name "ampersand" (and the various attempts at explaining "octothorpe" and the alternatives) are just amusing enough to justify buying a copy of this to have on hand for reference. The history of the ampersand is almost as interesting as the name, too. The reason that @ was used in e-mail addresses -- and essentially shaped how much of the world's communication in the few decades since then is a great example that it's not just butterflies flapping their wings in China that can make a huge impact on the other side of the world.

Naturally, not all chapters are equally interesting -- and that's going to be a matter of taste -- and the more technical bits of individual chapters are easily skimmable until Houston moves on to another aspect of the mark in question or on to the next chapter. I will admit I did that a time or two, but he always got me back within a chapter.

I really wish I could remember how this got on my radar a couple of weeks ago, so I could give a hat-tip and some thanks, I had a great time with this book. Well-illustrated (both anecdotally and with pictures), and with a great mix of style, wit and substance -- Shady Characters is a great way for a grammar geek to spend a day or two basking in the things that provide ornamentation to writing and our books. i do recommend it, and am glad I came across it.

2019 Library Love Challenge
Profile Image for Jessi.
94 reviews15 followers
November 1, 2017
“[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 and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this selected set of highlights and my accompanying notes is the only immortality you and I may share, my Shady Characters.

“Remington Rand entertained ideas of a revolution in punctuation with its new interrobang key, and said as much in an internal newsletter, explaining that ‘[the] Interrobang is already receiving favorable comments from typographers who are said to commend it for its ability to express the incredibility of modern life.’” – time for an interrobang revival at now?!

“Perhaps the most famous footnote of all, and one that surely would have to be invented did it not already exist, occurs in the Reverend John Hodgson’s magnum opus, his six-volume History of Northumberland, published between 1820 and 1840. In a work already renowned for its thoroughness, the third volume further distinguished itself by dint of a mammoth 165-page footnote describing the history of Roman walls in Britain.” – ~i’m in love with a footnote~ /t-pain voice

“Consider, for instance, the following characters: [an array of dash-like figures that do not render correctly here] and - . Which of these are hyphens? The first four are all dashes, the fifth is the mathematical minus sign, the sixth is an ugly chimera called the hyphen-minus—a hyphenated hyphen” – What the FUCK

“in 2007 bibliophiles were aghast when the Oxford English Dictionary dropped the hyphen from around 16,000 compound terms.” – aghast as shit tbh

“Whereas the modern writer or compositor is hamstrung by a multitude of rules controlling where a word may safely be broken, in Gutenberg’s day the first rule of Hyphenation Club was that there are no rules.” - :)

“By 1878, the librettist W.S. Gilbert (more famous as one half of Gilbert and Sullivan) could poke fun at the increasingly euphemistic use of ‘d’ for ‘damn,’ and had the captain of HMS Pinafore sing, ‘Bad language or abuse, / I never, never use [...] I never use the big, big D.’” – lollll
Profile Image for Mikolaj.
95 reviews26 followers
July 2, 2017
Niby o drobiazgach, ale pełna wiedzy. Starannie udokumentowana, erudycyjna książka rzucająca snopy iskier na zwykle pozostające w cieniu elementy typografii i sztuki wydawniczej oraz ich nie zawsze oczywistą i jasną historię.

Dodatkowa gwiazdka za bardzo staranne polskie wydanie.
Profile Image for Chris Kelly.
51 reviews1 follower
August 29, 2018
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.
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