Anyone who writes seriously pays attention to punctuation; we know that. That devilish comma in the Second Amendment has spawned countless 21st-century opinion columns despite its obvious roots in 18th-century conventions. But only this past week did I discover a tiny branch of study devoted only to punctuation patterns.
Adam Calhoun, an eclectic neuroscientist at Princeton, found himself drawn to the artist Nicholas Rougeux’s series of posters in the tradition of a particular kind of book art, or the misnamed artist’s book: works of art that use elements of the book as material. I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by this trend, which celebrates the wonders of books while sometimes eviscerating them of their literary significance. But while Rougeux’s posters, using Project Gutenberg, achieve “an exploration of visual rhythm of punctuation in well-known literary works” by making coils of punctuation marks, Calhoun wanted something more revealing about the works themselves.
He ran out pages of punctuation, then set about comparing works in English from across time and cultures. Some of the results are unsurprising. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is awash in semicolons; Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian contains almost none. Other results are more subtle than they first appear. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, for instance, contains longer sentences on average than any of the other works Calhoun studied. But when broken down into clauses — determined, perhaps unjustifiably, by “words between punctuation marks” — Calhoun says, “Faulkner is not that much of an outlier.”
I reached Calhoun to talk about his project, and the first question I had was why he’d chosen Absalom, Absalom as his favorite novel. “I find Faulkner’s language interesting,” he said, “and that book was much more accessible, for me, than The Sound and the Fury.” He admits to some flaws in his analysis of novel-length punctuation patterns. While he’s devised a code to enable others to analyze their favorite texts, as he’s done, his system does not distinguish between apostrophes and single quotation marks. That Alice in Wonderland, utilizing British convention, would contain more of these little marks than, say, A Farewell to Arms thus makes perfect sense; but the relative abundance of single-quote marks in Huckleberry Finn could just as easily suggest Twain’s rendering of dropped consonants or syllables, a feature that has nothing to do with amount of dialogue. Similarly, although Calhoun’s “plots” of punctuation show em- and en-dashes, neither is included in his statistical analysis, an omission that would deeply confuse readers of Emily Dickinson, among others.
Even more fun, for me, than Calhoun’s analyses were his heat maps. Simplifying his system to render periods, question marks, and exclamation points red, commas and quotation marks green, and semicolons and colons blue, he lays out colorful squares to illustrate 15 works of literature. These are beautiful and mysterious. The plays — Romeo and Juliet and A Doll’s House — glow red, whereas Great Expectations seems indigo. Joyce’s Ulysses moves from predominantly reddish lines to a rising tide of blue as Leopold Bloom’s day ends and we anticipate the punctuation-free monologue of his wife Molly. Smack in the middle of a fairly bluish Huckleberry Finn is a line of pure red that Calhoun reminded me was the little play in the center of the book. Perhaps most breathtaking of all, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus contains broad swaths of red and blue, which Calhoun attributes to its organization as “Statement A followed by Statement B followed by Statement C.”
The only heat map that shows much green, indicating dialogue, is Absalom, Absalom. In his discussion of his analyses, Calhoun mentions that in looking at the work of a contemporary author like Cormac McCarthy, where no quotations set off the dialogue, he found that “When the warm, curling hands of the quotation are gone the reader is left with a broader sense of space.” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that McCarthy’s dialogue blends in with the rest of his prose and seems to make spoken words almost part of the descriptive landscape. Certainly the heat map of Blood Meridian, which is redder even than the plays, echoes this sense of a broad, flat plain.
Adam Calhoun has been astonished by his original post’s going viral and pleased that, thus far, virtually all the responses he’s received have been enthusiastic about the project. He pointed out that he is not acting as a literary critic but as a neuroscientist, interested in how minds make and communicate meaning. He reminded me that researchers have discovered what they’re calling syntax in the courtship songs of male fruit flies. Whatever changes we undergo as a result of texting, punctuation remains one of the ways we shape and deliver meaning. The word itself derives from the Latin verb meaning to point out. Not only what we point to, but how we point, varies and changes as rapidly, and as consequentially, as language itself.