Hedera Punctuation

Although the punctuation wars have only been raging now for a few centuries, since the movable type of the printing press demanded some tightening up of the rules of engagement, there are a few fallen heroes and other obscure punctuation marks that we would do well to remember.

The hedera (❧)

None of these heroes, however, is quite as delicately beautiful as the hedera (❧). Taking its name from the Latin for ivy, and its shape from the leaf, it was originally introduced by Greek and Latin authors to signify a break between paragraphs. It is still used occasionally as an official punctuation mark, either on its side or upright.

Other heroes have also taken their place in the hall of obscure paratextual points.

The pilcrow (¶)

The name is a corruption of the ancient Greek paragraphos, the original punctuation mark, which showed a change of tack, and is perhaps most familiar to us from the toolbar in Windows. It still shows the end of a paragraph when the formatting symbols are made visible in a document, and it was originally used to guide the rubricators, medieval scribes that added red ink to manuscripts for emphasis at the start of a paragraph.

Incidentally, The Pilcrow is also the name of a pub in Manchester that was built entirely by volunteers, though I’m not sure of why they chose that name.

Reference marks (*, †, ‡, §, ∥, #, ※)

Many of us are familiar with the asterix (*) that is often used to draw attention to a footnote or endnote elsewhere in the text. Another mark, less immediately recognised is the dagger or obelisk (†), which hangs over the word like something Macbeth would grab at. It’s normally used as a second reference mark if the asterisk has already been used; the sequence then continues ‡, §, ∥, #, stopping at the sixth symbol, the hashtag or pound sign (#).

The percontation point (⸮)

In the sixteenth century, English printer John Denham proposed that a reverse question mark should be used to signal a rhetorical question that did not require an answer. Its use died out within a century, but who wouldn’t want to see it used today⸮

In addition to the punctuation that has fallen from favour, there are others that are yet to explode into mainstream culture.

The interrobang (‽)

Conceptualised in 1962 by an American advertising executive, Mark Speckler, this unofficial punctuation point effectively duplicates the informal habit of adding an exclamation and question mark together to express rhetorical surprise. A stylised version of the interrobang is also used by the educational publisher Pearson as a logo to reflect the incredulous excitement of learning.

Hervé Bazin

In 1966, the French writer published an essay entitled ‘Let’s Pluck the Bird!’, in which he proposed another set of punctuation marks to indicate various subtle differences in the preceding statements – acclamation, authority, certainty, doubt, irony, and love. Unfortunately, they aren’t available in Unicode, so some Googling is required to see them.