Stories of Punctuation and Typographic Marks: A Reading List

From the now-ubiquitous hashtag (or octothorpe, hash, pound, or whatever you like to call it) to the loved, hated, and misunderstood semicolon, punctuation marks not only help us shape our stories, but also have their own origins and histories and have become part of the narratives of our lives. Here are picks about six punctuation marks, from the comma to the asterisk.

1. “Holy Writ” (Mary Norris, The New Yorker)

“The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” Norris describes her early days at The New Yorker, from collating to working on the copydesk — reading greats like John McPhee and Pauline Kael — and her current job, more than thirty years later, as a comma queen.

2. “You Call that a Punctuation Mark?! The Interrobang Celebrates its 50th Birthday” (Nora Maynard, The Millions)

“Somewhere along the way, this double-barreled typographical starlet lost its momentum and found its way into the ‘Where Are They Now?’ file.” Maynard talks with Penny Speckter, the widow of the interrobang’s creator, ad executive Martin K. Speckter, about typography in the 1960s and her husband’s enthusiasm for the ‽.

3. “Mating Habits of the Asterisk” (Emily Meg Weinstein, The Morning News)

“In the dark, as we did it again, I couldn’t see the asterisk. But I felt it pressing against me, reminding me that even if he was an asshole, this was all just a footnote.” Weinstein muses on casual sexual relationships, decisions and expectations, and the mark (*) we use to denote our mistakes.

4. “The Long and Fascinating History of Quotation Marks” (Keith Houston, Slate)

“The punctuation mark is a storied character. Its family tree extends all the way back to the second century B.C., when its earliest ancestor sprang into being…” Houston, author of the blog and book Shady Characters, chronicles the history of quotation marks, from the evolution of the diple (>) in ancient texts and Christian literature to the development of double commas and opening and closing marks in the age of printing.

5. “The Hidden Language of the ~Tilde~” (Joseph Bernstein, BuzzFeed)

“Placing tildes around web words unquestionably does something to them, something destabilizing and a little uncanny…” Bernstein compiles the different uses for the tilde (~) in the internet wild, from signifying sarcasm to stripping a word or phrase of its baggage.

6. “The Ampersand, Part 1” (Keith Houston, Shady Characters)

“Whatever its origins, just as Cicero decisively overcame the prejudices he faced from the Roman establishment, the scrappy ampersand would go on to usurp the Tironian et in a quite definitive manner.” Houston traces the rise of the et (⁊), a character from a shorthand system devised by Tiro, the scribe of Roman philosopher Cicero. Yet it’s the ampersand, first recorded on a Pompeiian wall, that ultimately becomes the enduring symbol. (Part 2 follows the ampersand’s visual development, as the power of Tiro’s et fades.)