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



by Keith Houston

Published 2013

So I actually really like punctuation.  I’m not going to claim to be a punctuation genius (although a misplaced apostrophe – or lack of one when needed – does make me cringe and die a little inside), but I honestly find it fascinating.  Why do we have it?  How did we get it?  Who wrote the first question mark?  Heady questions, my friends!

While Eat, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss is still my favorite punctuation book (mainly because the subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is brilliant), Shady Characters was a great deal of fun.  Although Houston lacks Truss’s cutting humor, he definitely made the history of pilcrows, hashtags, interrobangs, and more quite readable.  Passing over everyday commoners, like periods, commas, and the like, Houston focuses on more obscure (and some virtually unused) items on our keyboard, discussing history, development, and usage of various typographical marks.

Possibly my favorite discovery in this book is that the hashtag (#) was used in computer language to indicate that the rest of that line of code was unnecessary or superfluous notes – and suddenly the usage of # for tagging everything makes perfect sense. #stuffeveryoneelseprobablyalreadyknows

There were also a decent number of pictures in this book, and the photos of old manuscripts and the like with ancestors of some of the punctuation we use today were pretty nifty.

All in all, this book was a pleasant and intriguing journey through the history of some of our more obscure punctuation marks, and some that I wish we used more often (or at all).  If you’re a grammar geek, or someone who simply enjoys non-fiction on random topics (or both, like me!), Shady Characters may be the read for you.