Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Punctuation* (*But Were Afraid to Ask): A Review of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2016-11-17


Like so many projects,* it started out innocently enough: a book recommendation, interest piqued by a mark recurring throughout the text, a definition that "invited more questions than it answered." That's all it took for Keith Houstonto plunge headlong and gleefully into a study of punctuation. The result? His 2013 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.  


Wide-Ranging in Scope

In tracing the origins of such shady characters as the pilcrow (), interrobang (), octothorpe (#), and ampersand (&), Houston takes us on many a well-researched scholastic excursion, introducing an impressive cast of human characters who played a role in creating, promoting, or stifling punctuation.


We meet great orators and writers of ancient Rome and Greece, scholars in the great library of Alexandria, monks in the scriptoria of medieval Europe, and a multitude of major players from centuries of literature, journalism, printing, and typography, right on to the Internet and social media. In fact, as the author notes in his afterword, “In following the warp and woof of individual shady characters throughout their lifetimes, it is the woven fabric of writing itself that emerges.” Small wonder that the notes section alone encompasses 68 pages!


Jaunty in Tone

Marcus Berkmann, writing in The Spectator, calls the book “scholarly, highly readable and, on some deeper level, slightly deranged,” and it’s that latter quality that gives the book its quirky charm. The tone is always one of unflagging good cheer, and Houston weaves his way through centuries of minutiae with aplomb, never intimidated by the vast scope of his undertaking.


The characters as he describes them are, well, characters who roam about and enliven the pages of the book, as in this sentence on page 181: “Even as the spat between printed and hand-drawn manicules raged on in the margins, printers began to deploy their neatly cut fists outside their usual role as reference marks.” The author takes obvious delight in his subject and in sharing with readers the fascinating and sometimes bizarre discoveries he has made in the course of his research.   


Visually Appealing

Meet the lemniscus (÷), the blackletter double hyphen (), the commash (,—), the asterism (ù), and the hash bang (#!). The various characters whose histories are so jauntily traced are given full rein to embellish the text, be it through copious footnotes, sprawling marginalia literally pointed to by manicules(E), or simply the many in-text references, whose rendering in red ink gives many a page a slightly riotous appearance.


Take page 111, for example: “The 2003 Oxford Style Manual suggests *, , , §, , and ||while the sixteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style recommends *, , , and §, having trimmed || and from earlier editions.” Seventy-five illustrations – from reproductions of ancient manuscripts, stone tablets, and comic strips to photos of teletypewriters, road signs, mailboxes, cufflinks, and baseball fans – provide a wealth of examples for the attentive reader to study (especially intriguing: the hand-drawn manicules in the margins of fifteenth-century books!).  


Dipping Allowed

For those who want to jump straight to a particular chapter, the book contains copious cross-references to help with any terms that are explained in other chapters. Caution: the cross-references may draw you in to the extent that you blaze a zig-zag trail through the entire book, not stopping until you’ve read it in its entirety!   





* For an entirely different kind of project that acquired its own dynamic, check out Stuart McLean’s story  “Odd Jobs” in Vinyl Café Unplugged (audio available @

Introducing himself on his website (, the author writes, “I’m Keith Hou­s­ton. By day I write med­ical visu­al­iz­a­tion soft­ware but by night I cycle, play bass and write about punc­tu­ation.” 

Quoting, but then blithely disregarding the words of Yale law professor Fred Rodell – “The footnote foible breeds nothing but sloppy thinking, clumsy writing and bad eyes” – Houston is an ardent writer of footnotes. The first page of the chapter on asterisks and daggers contains this footnote: “In honor of their role as footnote reference marks, I plan to fill this chapter with numerous lengthy and entirely tangential footnotes so as to take full advantage.” He fully delivers on this promise, not only in this  chapter but throughout the text.