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Shady Characters: The Secret Life Of Punctuation Symbols And Other Typographical Paperback – Oct 21 2014

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: WW Norton (Oct. 21 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393349721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393349726
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.3 x 21.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 386 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #198,513 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


If Eats, Shoots & Leaves whetted your appetite on the subject of punctuation, then you have a treat in store. Shady Characters is an authoritative, witty, and fascinating tour of the history and rationale behind such lesser known marks as the ampersand, manicule, the pilcrow, and the interrobang. Keith Houston also explains the octothorpe—otherwise known as the hashtag—and and my final comment on his book is #awesome. — Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad

Make no mistake: this is a book of secrets. With zeal and rigor, Keith Houston cracks open the &, the #, the † and more—all the little matryoshka dolls of meaning that make writing work. Inside, we meet novelists, publishers, scholars and scribes; we range from ancient Greeks to hashtagged tweets; and we see the weird and wonderful foundations of the most successful technology of all time. — Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Funny, surprising, and, of course, geeky. — Michael D. Schaffer and John Timpane (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Might make you look at books… in an entirely new way. — Andrew Robinson (Nature)

Houston…is a tireless researcher and an amiable teacher. — Jan Gardner (Boston Globe)

A pleasurable contribution to type history, particularly for readers who haven’t considered the ampersand in any detail. — Carl W. Scarbrough (New Criterion)

Fascinating. — Rob Kyff (The Courant)

About the Author

Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters and the founder of He lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the most interesting (AND FUN!) books that I have read in a long time. It is very well written, and presents the history of punctuation in a funny and logical manner. We see he connections that exist between the English language, and the earliest written languages which evolved thousands of years ago. The characters which come to life are not merely the punctuation, but many humans as well - Edward Gibbons with his 165 page footnote. Martin Luther and Johannes Eck debating with daggers and asterisks, and Origen (Alexandria) - a major contributor to our punctuation - who decides to castrate himself to improve his chances of going to heaven. Although sometimes anecdotal in approach, we are left with a clear and useful picture of the history of our language and punctuation. One finishes the book with regret, shaking the head, and repeating...'Who knew?'.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A well-written and surprisingly engaging account of how and where our common punctuation marks arose and of how their use in English sentences has altered throughout the history of written English. I recommend this little volume to all comma-freaks!

Bill Casselman
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having worked in the typesetting trade for many years, I had numerous quibbles with Houston's writing about second-half-of-the-last-century matters. Entertaining text, though.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great fun! A ramble through history, culture, typography, religion, literature - all connected by the use and abuse of typographic characters. Lots to learn.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars 59 reviews
77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't buy this book for Kindle Oct. 8 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The nonstandard characters used in the book render as microscopic; I can't find a fix for this, and it happens both on the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle Android app. The parts of the book that I can read are interesting, but I'm missing a lot with the rendering deficiency. Frankly I'm a bit shocked that a publisher would let this go to market in this condition. Perhaps the paper version is more legible.
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lots of sunshine on a shady history Oct. 2 2013
By C. Ebeling - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not that long ago, I was reading an edition of a Shakespeare play that retained the original formatting. I stared at the punctuation and thought how very modern it was, and just as I was reminded that I've often wondered where we get these marks we use every day, along came Keith Houston with this ray of sunshine called Shady Characters. I ordered it instantly and had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, it is hands down informative, earnest, witty, well-produced and so very reassuringly human in this digital age.

Houston has selected the pilcrow (that backward P for paragraph), "commercial at" (@), octothorpe (pound or hash sign), ampersand, asterisk, dagger, hyphen, manicule (pointing hand), quotation marks, the interrobang (question mark overlaid with an exclamation mark) and marks to indicate irony and sarcasm. The earliest symbols show up with the Greeks and Romans; turning points include the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press, and, more recently, the typewriter. Computers and the internet are respectful latecomers to the party.

Houston is a detective who digs for hard evidence. Typographical legends persist and he insists on finding the truth. Assumptions are dashed. His end notes and bibliography reveal that he shifted through a lot of dry, not to mention dusty, texts in search of his answers and he has done a terrific job of articulating the information. He sustains a vibrant energy to the last page. The hardcover book is attractively produced with the symbols rendered in red ink.

This is Houston's first book. On the strength of it, I'll sign up for his next, whatever it is.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quirky topic but well written. Oct. 13 2013
By Gizmo - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Deceptively interesting book. Good blend of history, both ancient and newer. Good read. I first hear about the book in the New York Times which lead me to read his blog, where I got hooked. I'd encourage people to go to the shady characters blog to read essentially the entire first chapter to see what you think.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating survey of pilcrows, interrobangs, octothorpes, and other esoterica of typography June 12 2014
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most of us, when reading and writing, use and mentally process a multitude of typographical symbols without thinking about them, even though we probably do not know the names for many of those marks nor how they came about. That's the arcane and overlooked, even "shady", world that Keith Houston explores in surprisingly lively and engaging fashion in SHADY CHARACTERS.

The mark "@" is ubiquitous, at least on the Internet, and we all use and understand it. But where did it come from? As Houston tells us, it was the brainchild of Ray Tomlinson, a twenty-nine-year-old computer engineer who in 1971 was working on the development of the ARPANET. On his own initiative Tomlinson came up with a way to direct messages to the mailbox of a specific user on a given mainframe computer, employing the then-underutilized symbol "@" on the keyboard of his ASR-33 teletype. "Half-fearing the wrath of his superiors were they to discover his pet project, Tomlinson initially kept quiet about his invention. [He told a co-worker,] 'Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on.' His concern was misplaced: e-mail became the fledgling network's first 'killer app' * * *. [B]y 1973, only two years after the first e-mail traveled from one side of Tomlinson's office to the other, it accounted for three-quarters of all traffic on the ARPANET."

Another ubiquitous symbol is "#". Most folks nowadays would call it a "hash tag" or a "pound sign". Its formal name, however, is an "octothorpe", which was bestowed on it by Bell Labs in the development of the Touch-Tone keypad, although the symbol itself can be traced back to medieval times in connection with usages dating back to ancient Rome.

In several chapters Houston ventures into the related realm of punctuation, in particular as regards the hyphen, the dash, and quotation marks. Throughout the book the reader is exposed to vignettes of history, smatterings of grammar, and precís of technological developments -- all invariably relevant and interesting. The book also unearths various proposed symbols that failed to catch on, including several designed to signify irony (all of which shared an inherent shortcoming: "if the quality of irony in a statement is such that it must be telegraphed to the reader, is it still ironic?").

SHADY CHARACTERS is extremely well written. The subject is rather esoteric, even recondite, and in the hands of most authors the book would undoubtedly be on the dry and pedantic side. But SHADY CHARACTERS is a delight to read, which is quite an accomplishment. Some of that pleasure is also due to the intelligent and intricate, yet carefully executed, typesetting. Among other things, the book uses a reddish hue for printing the various symbols being discussed as well as for miscellaneous ornamentation. (Aesthetically pleasing as the practice is, my faltering eyesight was not always able to discern the small reddish asterisks used as footnote markers.) Augmenting and enhancing the discussion are numerous illustrations. Given the relative complexities of the typography and typesetting, coupled with the haphazard copyediting that often prevails today, I would not have been surprised to encounter a host of typographical errors, but I did not find any. Kudos to W.W. Norton! This book is a shining example that publishers still can turn out error-free products if they -- and the authors -- care enough. (On the other hand, I suspect that the book bumps up against the limitations of Kindle.)

There is one small writing misstep, however: In the course of discussing how the asterisk was once used by the baseball establishment to set apart and mildly denigrate Roger Maris's accomplishment of hitting 61 home runs in a 162-game season (vis-á-vis the sacred 60-home-run mark of the Babe in a 154-game-season), Houston writes that late in the 1961 season Mickey Mantle had to sit out due to injury, "leaving Maris to score a record-breaking 61st run". The proper American baseball terminology, of course, would have been "to hit a record-breaking 61st home run". But then, the author lives in Scotland.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but avoid digital versions Nov. 28 2013
By Steve Harrison - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Many punctuation marks turn out to have a surprisingly long and, for the few of us fascinated by such things, interesting history. The book does a nice job of telling it. The style is brief, breezy, and popularized, though it does make reference to sources.

Some of the history of punctuation involves historical trivia only distantly related to it but that the author either couldn't bear to leave out or needed to throw in in order to expand an otherwise slender volume. His knowledge of those other things, both ancient and modern, is not always as sure as his understanding of punctuation, and sometimes that shows.

Another review mentions that non-standard characters are "microscopic" on Kindle and Android platforms. I can report that they are on the iPad as well.