Magazine article The Spectator

On Your Marks

Magazine article The Spectator

On Your Marks

Article excerpt

One day there simply won't be any strange byways of the English language left to write quirky little books about. Happily that day hasn't arrived yet. Keith Houston's Shady Characters (Particular Books, �16.99, Spectator Bookshop, �13.99, Tel: 08430 600033)) ventures into the previously untrodden territory of punctuation marks, and not the obvious ones either. Full stops and commas are as nothing to him.

Semi-colons are scarcely worth his attention. No, he's in pursuit of asterisks and daggers, hyphens and ampersands. Why is a hash sign (#) formally called an octothorpe? (No one is quite sure.) Why didn't the interrobang (? ! ) take off? (It did, in the 1960s, but it crash-landed soon after.) The pilcrow ( ) survives as a carriage-return marker in word-processing programs but was originally the sign for a new paragraph on medieval manuscripts. …

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