Punctuation Marks, Or: Why Language Is So Fascinating (2/2)


This is part two of my article on Adorno’s essay about punctuation marks, so you’ll have to face the unblinking stare of the author once again on this Featured Image. My sincere apologies. By the way: have you noticed that I changed the navigation pane on my website and added a few more pages, including a bibliography, a newsletter, and a donation page? Now you know it. I also strongly recommend you read the first part of this article before you start skimming through this one, because I won’t summarize or chew through what I already wrote. Yet another set of sincere apologies here.

So in the first part, I started at the end of the essay and stopped before I could go back to the beginning. Rewind, unwind, release the thoughts. Get started. First, let me quote the first few sentences that so beautifully introduce Adorno’s train of thoughts:

“The less punctuation marks, taken in isolation, convey meaning or expression and the more they constitute the opposite pole in language to names, the more each of them acquires a definitive physiognomic status of its own, an expression of its own, which cannot be separated from its syntactic function but is by no means exhausted by it. (…) An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light on the blink of an eye. A colon (…) opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. (…)
All of them are traffic signals; in the last analysis, traffic signals were modeled on them. Exclamation points are red, colons green, dashes call a halt. (…) [T]hey are marks of oral delivery; instead of diligently serving the interplay between language and the reader, they serve, hieroglyphically, an interplay that takes place in the interior of language, along its own pathways. Hence it is superfluous to omit them as being superfluous: then they simply hide. Every text, even the most densely woven, cites them of its own accord – firendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.”

What an introduction! The only thing that strikes me as odd is the part where he says that “they constitute the opposite pole in language to names.” I suppose “names” in that case means explicitly outspoken things, as opposed to signs that only imply what is not said out loud. Other than that, the images he creates in this introduction are what made me continue to read the essay in the first place: the synesthetic values of punctuation marks, which shows in the association of a sign with a color; and the pictorial display of puncuation marks – nearly turning them into human forms – immediately appealed to me.

Even more fascinating: Adorno, who, as we learned in the first post, advocates the sparing use of punctuation marks, shows that leaving them out as unnecessary is not the desired approach: if you just leave them out for the sake of leaving them out, they will creep in between your sentences anyways, because they happen at the interior of the language; so to say in the invisible subconscious of your text. As much as the author can control the visible exterior of his writing, he cannot influence the way how the reader reads it and where the reader inserts punctuation marks, or breaks (if he stops reading for a while, for instance). The reader will automatically play the melody of the text in his head; and add or remove punctuation marks or breaks, or skip words and lines as he pleases. Playing a text as an audio book is not a solution either: the mind wanders, attention is dispersed, the intention of the author is never purely transmitted. Ah, the beautiful “white noise” between the sender and the receiver.

The next quote is something for the musicians among us:

“There is no element in which language resembles music more than in the punctuation marks (…) and only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form can really feel the distinction between the comma and the semicolon.”

This is quite an interesting statement. We may have to consider here that Germany is a very musical country… without the hot rhythms of certain other countries. We are very much into choirs, orchestras, and bands; it is common to at least play the recorder at some point in your childhood. At the same time, feeling music does not necessarily require playing an instrument, or singing. Running in time with the beat of a song that stimulates you is as much evidence of being able to understand music, as is dancing in a club. Just like language, music is present almost everywhere – but the intonation of a song is easier to read than the intonation of a text. An admirable skill however is to sight-read – and to animate the melody just by reading the score.

Adorno goes on to say that the opposition to punctuation marks, which arose in the 20th century, may not have been directed towards their “ornamental element,” but “the expression of how sharply music and language diverge from one another.” Modern music also plays with the conventional signs and notes you usually find in a score: have you ever seen the score of a modern piece written for the bass transverse flute? Nothing but loops, curls, and serrated lines… But still, the musician can translate the script into music. So why does Adorno claim that literature and music are different, if both use punctuation marks (i.e. the “length” of a musical note in a score) to mark the melody? I would assume that in music, punctuation marks are more dogmatic than in literature. Imagine an orchestra, where every musician presented a different interpretation of the melody, playing at a different speed. Music requires the conductor, or a common beat that all participants agree on, to work. In the dialogue between the text and the reader, no third party is involved that provides the rhythm.

So, let’s talk about exclamation points:

The historical character of punctuation marks can be seen in the fact that what becomes outdated in them is precisely what was once modern in them. Exclamation points, gestures of authority with which the writer tries to impose an emphasis external to the matter itself, have become intolerable (…) Exclamation points (…) have degenerated into usurpers of authority, assertions of importance. It was exclamation points, incidentally, that gave German Expressionism its graphic form. Their proliferation was both a protest against convention and a symptom of the inability to alter the structure of language from within; language was attacked from the outside instead. Exclamation points survive in that period, and their impotent evocation redeems them in memory: a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.”

I originally wanted to talk about Expressionism here and about what punctuation marks mean for other 20th century art movements, such as Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, Structuralism, and the Pittura Metafisica. But another thought came up that is more related to the world we are living in today: it is true that the number of exclamation points has decreased and that style guides recommend to only use them if a warning is explicitly expressed. Exclamation points – the usurpers of authority – are harsh, hard, and relentless: just like working life was perceived by the generations that came after WWII and before the gen-Y Millennials. You had to use your elbows to work your way up; status symbols, like a home, a nice car, a storybook family, were important (quote Adorno: “they look like the multiple zeros on the banknotes printed during the German inflation”). Those symbols of a solid middle class life are like exclamation marks (there was an excellent advertising campaign for the Sparkasse demonstrating exactly this):

My house!

My car!

My boat!

Exclamation points all over the place. Male dominance. Elbows. Status symbols. You are what you have! However, recent studies have shown that this “blue” way of thinking (remember the limbic pitch?) is not what many Millennials (including myself) really want in the first place. It’s more about living a good, enriching, fulfilling life. For Adorno, the importance of the exclamation points ended when Expressionism “went up in smoke along with them;” but I think that there has been this revival of exclamation points in the second half of the century, that ended with… well, maybe with 9/11?

Another thought for the time after Adorno had written this text: what about binary code, programming languages, and hackers? It is true that binary code is composed of only zeros and ones, but this uniform exterior hides the melody of a language that can enunciate a variety of commands – without exclamation points. Next, we should look at programming languages. At first glance, they “abuse” the punctuation marks we I so fervently discuss. But if you think about it, programming languages just borrow those close-to-universal signs and reinterpret them, give them a new life. This holds also true for mathematical formula, but those have been around for quite some time, so I don’t count them as means to revive “unloved” punctuation marks. Even if you are not a programmer, symbols like !=, < >, / can help you read the melody of code. If I see a piece of code <within parentheses>, I may not be able to read it, but I at least intuitively know that this is an entity of code, a “one”.

Moreover, code is at least as flexible as (if not more than) language: programmers can invent new strings of code to convey meaning, as philosophers and authors can invent new punctuation marks to communicate emotions. If we play with that thought a little, we can establish the connection to hackers – the “original” IT experts in playing with code to create or change meaning or functionality. This is a notion that I’ll definitely keep in mind for my exposé.

In the next paragraph, Adorno criticizes”literary dilettantes,” who “can be recognized by their desire to connect everything.”

“Their products hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras.”

This is all about accuracy and obedience to punctuation rules – like machines, the dilettantes produce text within their own literary comfort zone, without looking beyond their own noses. Adorno lists the dash as the countermeasure. “In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. (…) [I]t separates things that feign a connection.” He beautifully explains how author Theodor Storm used them:

“Rarely have punctuation marks been so deeply allied with content as the dashes in his novellas, mute lines into the past, wrinkles on the brow of the text. With them the narrator’s voice falls into an uneasy silence: the span of time they insert between two sentences is that of a burdensome heritage; set bald and naked between the events they draw together (…) So discreetly does myth conceal itself in the nineteenth century, it seeks refuge in typography.”

Believe me, I know it is unwise to bloat this post by quoting Adorno over and over. But isn’t it just beautiful, how he describes the meaning of the dash? Every time I use one now, I immediately think of how dashes may be meant to connect events; and how they insert a local or temporal distance in between. How they leave open space for the reader to ponder, to interpret, and to reflect on the text. How a dash can change a sentence; maybe what is writen before is of one emotional color – and maybe the dash changes everything for the part written after it.

Another beautiful example of the connection between language and art:

“The ellipsis, a favorite way of leaving sentences meaningfully open during the period when Impressionism became a commercialized mood, suggests an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something the hack journalist des not have; he must depend on typography to stimulate them.”

(By the way, this is the first time I saw the word “hack” (dull) used as an adjective.) Isn’t the expression “when Impressionism became a commercialized mood” of uttermost elegancy? In the 19th century, impressionist thinking was en vogue; the earthy palette, the shy playfulness of the light, the suggested outlines (especially in the finesse of pointillism) – there was a lot room for interpretation and much depended on how pieces made their impression on the readers or viewers. By not saying everything, anything can be said; which is probably why ellipses have continued their triumphal procession: in “modern societies,” everything is fluid and nothing is definite. Millions of choices are available, everything seems possible. Innuendos dominate over statements; and those with too many choices at hand have trouble settling for the one right choice.

Quotation marks

“… should be used only when something is quoted and if need be when the text wants to distance itself from a word it is referring to. They are to be rejected as an ironic device.”

I realize that I have been using quotation marks thoughtlessly in the past and will most likely continue to do so, but I swear I will avoid them when it comes to irony. Putting something in quotation marks really creates visual distance to the rest of the text, more so than italic or bold type. Regarding the irony: it seems that using quotation marks for this reason disempowers the reader. The writer assumes that the reader doesn’t get it without him helping out by giving him a broad hint in the form of quotation marks: “For they exempt the writer from the spirit whose claim is inherent in irony, and they vioalte the very concept of irony by separating it from the matter at hand and presenting a predetermined judgment on the subject.” Adorno is quite stern in his diction, as he calls Marx’s and Engels’ ironic quotation marks “the shadows that totalitarian methods cast in advance upon their writings (…).” While this sounds harsh, it again hints that literature is tightly connected to the cultural mood in society; and: “indifference to literary form always indicates dogmatization of the content.”

The semi-colon

Adorno relates the decreased use of semi-colons to the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace – by the consumer (…) to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes. (…) Prose is reduced to the ‘ ‘protocol sentence,’ ‘ the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts (…) [L]anguage is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time.”

With the rise of automated processes and technology, this reduction to what exists seems a valid symptom of our time. Moreover, think about hypertext and how the Internet has changed our reading habits: we prefer short sentences over long ones, we don’t want to exert ourselves for understanding a text. Code is logical, facts are logical (think about journalism), reality is more present than fiction (think about reality soaps); while, at the same time, the fiction we have is getting ever more immersive and all-encompassing (Lord of the Rings – books, movies, games, merchandise; or virtual worlds that invite us to create second identities).

Parentheses and brackets

When I read the following paragraph, I immediately had to think of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 with the writer Tengo, who is lectured by his editor to describe only what the readers do not know; and to omit everything the readers already know: “The test of a writer’s sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets (…), for brackets take the parenthesis completely out of the sentence, creating enclaves, as it were, whereas nothing in good prose should be unnecessary to the overall structure.”

This makes sense, doesn’t it? I don’t want to know how many times I placed things in parentheses, just because I thought it had to be there, without even considering that it might either be left out, or introduced into the sentence in a more coherent way. I tend to use parentheses as deus ex machina narrator-esque devices, to introduce completely unfitting thoughts from off the scene. If I did that consistently – and if I only used parentheses for this purpose – I might call it style, but I am far from that. I’ll just leave this as a memo to myself for future texts, since Adorno also confirms: “the justification for Proust’s use of punctuation marks lies solely in the approach of his whole novelistic oeuvre (…) Proust’s bracketed parentheses, which interrupt both the graphic image and the narrativ, are memorials to the moments when the author (…) openly takes the reins.”

Looking at more than 4,000 words written in this post (including what’s written below this bold paragraph), I wonder about two things: who will read this; and why did I write this? For the first question, the answer would be: I do care, but I don’t care. This was not written for anyone specifically, but I am of course checking Google Analytics to see if one or two of my twitter followers clicked on the link to this article that will appear in my twitter feed. To the second question, the answer would be: because I take delight in writing about such topics. They endow me with a satisfaction on a mental level that nothing else can give me at the moment. So if you read this far: thank you, I really appreciate it!

One more thing…

I just tried to find Adorno’s essay in German, but instead I found two books on punctuation marks: Die Poesie der Zeichensetzung. Studien zur Stilistik der Interpunktion (which also features Adorno’s essay, but is not available for free); and (on Google Books) Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich? Geste, Gestalt und Bedeutung philosophischer Zeichensetzung. In an interview related to the latter book, I picked up an interesting thought (the interview with editor Christine Abbt has been conducted in German Austrian, so pardon my translation):

“In literature, ellipses [Note: in this case, the interviewer is referring to the famous three dots – … – which Christine Abbt has been working on] are supposed to reinforce the reader’s feelings; what is their role in philosophy?”

“The turn into the gesture, showing that language does not coincide with what we experience; that we can experience, feel, and perceive something that cannot be translated exactly into language. In type, the ellipses side with modern linguistig criticism (Sprachkritik in German). They mark the limit of language and, at the same time, they show that this threshold has to be passed by all means. In his essay, “Was ist Metaphysik?,” Heidegger uses the three dots where he refers to the horizon, in front of which language puts itself into effect. According to Heidegger, this horizon is visible for the individual in feelings, such as boredom or anxiety. In his texts, this indescribable horizon only reveals itself in the three dots. (…) “We are afraid of …” Shown with the dots is that there is something that goes beyond language.”


“Language and its signs are constantly changing: are there any current examples for how philosophers engage in punctuation marks?”

“In his texts, the New York philosopher Eugene Gendlin attempts to describe a “body felt sense” and uses five underlined dots for this. They mark a bodiliness which participates in the language. In the book [Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich?], Donata Schoeller discusses this new creation of a philosophical sign. I consider this to be a beautiful example that, in the present, we are looking for signs and forms that act as a thought, or as a conviction, within the type face.”

“This is what smileys and emoticons from the IT world do; and they redeem what Gottsched demanded 200 years ago [Note: in 1762, Johann Christoph Gottsched claimed that the German language was missing punctuation marks that would be important for philosophy, such as a sign for amazement, for compassion]: why are they not used in philosophy?”

“This is probably the case, because Western philsophy has been cautious in the face of images, whether in metaphors or iconography; and as cautious in the face of popular practice. In principle, philosophy strives for differentiation in the best case. The speed at which the smiley has prevailed globally, and its efficiency to display such complex phenomena as irony, appears suspicious from a philosophical viewpoint. However, the differenciated engagement with signs, as well as with emoticons, is certainly philosophically legitimate.”

What first came to my mind was that it is interesting, how philosophy and literature treat punctuation marks differently. My second thought was that la sémiotique is the ideal discipline to bridge the gap between philosophy and literature: while I understand the reluctance of philosophy to engage with emoji and emoticons, I hold that disregarding them from a philosophical perspective is no longer possible today. Certainly, literature does not use emoticons (except when chat logs are part of the text), but I would not be surprised if the first books with emoticons started to appear quite soon. Books have illustrations, so why not those small icons and pictograms to convey the author’s emotions? Moreover, consider the Japanese emojicons (NOT the Unicode Emoji), which are so much richer in their form and meaning than the emoticons in Roman type: ლ(⌒▽⌒ლ) versus 😀 (more). So: would these emoticons or emojicons be helpful to understand the writer’s intention? Certainly… But if it turned into common practice, instead of being a stylistic device, it would pollute language with emotions and leave no room for interpretation.

Going back to regular punctuation marks and the invention of new “acclaimed” mars, such as the . . . . . : this sounds like a less harmful and even more exciting prospect, demonstrating that language is still changing and that dogmatic rules are out of place.

One last thing…

Every time this happens, it strikes me as funny and confusing at the same time: the point I was trying to make, when I googled Adorno’s essay in German, was not to show that there is a small number of philosophers who research punctuation marks. I was actually trying to gather my thoughts for something I have been thinking about a lot lately: why do I write in English, given that my English is far from perfect? Wouldn’t my text sound more witty if they were written in a language I claim to master? I thought I could write a lot about this question, but the answer is actually fairly simple: visibility. By writing in German, I automatically limit my audience to those who speak German (assuming that Google Translate does not have the skills to translate my beloved Schachtelsätze yet). While this may sound megalomaniac at first glance (if no one speaking German reads my texts, why would someone speaking English be interested in them?), it makes sense: there is more exchange on the topics that intrigue me in English, than there is in German. Moreover, German-speaking people who happen to stumble across my website are very likely to speak English as well, so English (even my English) is no obstacle for them. I’ll post in German every now and then, when I feel that my limited vocabulary and use of stylistic devices in English cannot convey what I intend with my post… (see how the three dots leave space for emotions?)

Alas, onwards to the next intellectual adventure!

PS: one very last thing…

In the first part of the article, I talked about French punctuation marks and blank lines; and I said I’d  talk neither about the pedantic design of lists (sorted and unsorted), nor about the Spanish ¡¿. However, there is another punctuation mark-related thought that bugged me: quotation marks in German, English, and French. This is actually a topic where I’d like to find the right historical answers before talking about what they mean to me from a sociological or philosophical perspective (unlike the part where I skipped enunciating the literary tradition for the French oddity of Plenken). So I’ll put that on hold for now (given that the post is already way too long).
At the same time, I’d be happy to follow any recommendation related to the evolution of our quotation marks (we used to have » « in German, for instance).

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