At a time when many are forecasting the end of “the Age of the Book,” when the future of texts and of writing appears to be more fluid than it has for many centuries, we are seeing an extraordinary number of overlapping scholarly studies concerned with the history of the book, the history of writing, bibliography and textual editing, orality and literacy, and other related topics. (Walter Ong has suggested that the work of Jacques Derrida, usually discussed in other contexts, reflects this heightened awareness of the history and the “psychodynamics” of the culture of the book.) With Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, M. B. Parkes has made a significant contribution to this ever- expanding field of study. As such, it will be of great value to scholars in a wide variety of disciplines. At the same time, anyone who is professionally engaged with punctuation-writers, editors, proofreaders, teachers-will find much of interest in Parkes’s history.
In his introduction, Parkes writes that his “principal aim has been to raise a reader’s consciousness of what punctuation is and does, and to emphasize the effects it produces.” His book (in oversized format, to accommodate the plates) is divided into three parts. In part 1, “Pause: Symbols as Notation,” Parkes traces the evolution of the graphic symbols used for punctuation. In part 2, “Effect: Symbols as Signs,” he considers diverse influences on the application of punctuation and the effects produced. (Parts 1 and 2 are followed by a very extensive section of notes, and two appendices). Part 3 consists of a generous selection of plates, with Parkes’s commentary on the facing pages. The back matter includes a glossary, a list of punctuation symbols, and two indexes: the first of authors cited and extracts quoted, the second of manuscripts cited. (Unfortunately there is no general index, though the table of contents is relatively detailed.) Finally, there is a selected bibliography of printed works cited. The book as a whole attests the superb editorial, design, and production skills of the University of California Press.
Parkes’s story begins in the classical world, where texts were regarded primarily as prompts for oral delivery. Greek texts typically had no divisions between words. Although some Latin texts of the first century A.D. employed interpuncts (points or symbols placed between words), the Romans soon began to emulate the Greek practice, with no indications of breaks except for divisions between major sections of a text. Texts written in this manner, which was called scriptio continua, could not be read at first glance. Rather, the reader had to work through the text slowly, noting word divisions (ambiguous in some cases) and grasping the overall structure, then finding the most effective phrasing. Parkes notes that not until the sixth century is there significant evidence of punctuation in an author’s own hand. Most texts were dictated to an amanuensis and transmitted in scribal copies. Simple punctuation-the addition of marks indicating pauses between phrases-was the reader’s job, not the writer’s, and was intended to aid in the oral delivery of the text.
What Parkes refers to as “the prehistory of punctuation” began in earnest with the work of thegrammatici, “the teachers who provided secondary education in the ancient world.” Punctuation was a pedagogical tool to aid inexperienced...
(The entire section is 1413 words.)