Punctuation Personified (1824)

Ev’ry lady in this land
Has twenty nails upon each hand
Five & twenty on hands & feet
And this is true without deceit.
But when the stops were plac’d aright,
The real sense was brought to light.

The child protagonist of Punctuation Personified: or, Pointing Made Easy (1824) reads aloud without pause. Robert “gabbled so fast” and “ran on with such speed” that “all meaning he lost”. That is, until Mr. Stops comes to his aid. With commas for feet and a colon torso, Mr. Stops walks with a curly-brace cane and sports a typographical dagger in his section-symbol belt. Even his hand is a manicule, his hat a caret.

Taking the child on a tour through punctuation, Mr. Stops introduces him to a cast of literal “characters”: there is Counsellor Comma, who knows “neither guile nor repentance” in his pursuit of “dividing short parts of a sentence”; Ensign Semicolon struts with militaristic pride, for “into two or more parts he’ll a sentence divide”; and The Exclamation Point is “struck with admiration”, his face “so long, and thin and pale”. Less common typographical marks get clustered into Arcimboldo-esque assemblages: a dash, circumflex, accent acute and grave, diereses, hyphen, and breve compose a rosy leafleteer, handing out fliers on punctuation to tentative children. And other personifications trade on iconic resemblances: ? is a “little crooked man” with a bent back and hat beneath his feet; ¶ carries a bindle and boards a boat toward distant shores, for the pilcrow announces something “distinct from what was read before”.

In addition to providing children with images for remembering the unnatural conventions of writing, Punctuation Personified offers guidelines for translating these marks back into spoken language. When reading aloud, count one for a comma, two after a semicolon, and four following a full stop. This hierarchy parrots the instructions given in Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795), a book that sold more than twenty million copies and remained influential throughout the nineteenth century. In this period, however, it was not uncommon for “pointing” to be supplemental — the work of printers, compositors, and correctors, who received manuscripts wholly lacking in spaces for breath. During Making a Point, David Crystal quotes John Smith’s Printer’s Grammar (1755), which illustrates the practice: “[some authors] point their Matter either very loosely or not at all: of which two evils, however, the last is the least; for in that case a Compositor has room left to point the Copy his own way.” This had a further unifying effect on punctuation and led to “a growing rapprochement between grammarians and printers”. And yet, the problem of individual usage remained. Realizing that the rules of punctuation were mystifying to children, authors of books like Punctuation Personified attempted to systematize the deployment of these signs from a young age.

Published by John Harris as part of the Novelties for the Nursery series, Punctuation Personified was one of several books in this era that visualized language for pedagogical ends. The Infant’s Grammar (1822) held a picnic party for the parts of speech; Osbourne’s Pictorial Alphabet (1835) vitalized the ABCs in classical scenes. And the tradition lives on: Barbara Cooper’s 2000s series of picture books introduces Alan Apostrophe, Christopher Comma, and Emma Exclamation Point. Charming as can be, the illustrations for Punctuation Personified seem to wink at a deeper wisdom: far from dead things, these silent symbols enliven writing, opening space for the entrance of breath and understanding.

Below you can browse the hand-colored engravings from Punctuation Personified. Mr. Stops would return in Madame Leinstein’s The Good Child’s Book of Stops, or, Punctuation in Verse (ca. 1825), which can be read at archive.org.