Letter to Sis/A History Lesson

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Tony Cooper

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Mar 14, 2002, 11:56:08 PM3/14/02
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Dear Sis:

Thanks for your recent letter. In answer to your question,
punctuation *is* one of the subjects discussed in AUE.
Mostly, though, it's leftpondians or rightpondians
expressing amazement at the position of the quotation marks
relative to the punctuation marks that the other uses. It's
a recurring, if trite, exchange.

Much more interesting to me is the history of punctuation.
As I understand it, it all began in about the 3rd century
B.C. in a library in Alexandria. The Chief Librarian,
Philopator, quite often jotted down notes of things to be
done by the Assistant Librarians. He take a bit of papyrus,
scribble a note on it, and dab a sticky juice made of ground
sedge on the back of it and stick it on the stone wall of
the vault in the library's kitchen where the cool drinks and
lunch sacks were kept.(1) To do this, he had to shift
several drawings made by the Assistant Librarian's children
and notices of coming toga parties, but rank counted for
something in those days.

A note might have read:
"Shelvescrollssetoutsharpenedwritingreedssweepoutfrogslocusts."
Since punctuation, spacing between words, and articles in
written work had not yet been invented, his notes were very
difficult for the Assistant Librarians to deal with. Things
became very disorderly in the library, and needed projects
were simply not performed. Assistant Librarians spent far
too much of their time deciphering Philopator's
instructions.

So, the library called in a Consultant (2) to study the
problem. The Consultant looked at the note, and - after an
appropriate amount of deliberation - asked what a
"scrollssharpened" was. Philopator, rolled his eyes and
replied snappishly "That's two different words. I want them
to shelve the scrolls."

After further deliberation, the Consultant said "That's the
answer to your problem. Put a space between each of the
words when you write them, and the notes will be easier to
read." Philopator then re-wrote the note to say:
"Shelve scrolls set out sharpened writing reeds sweep out
frogs locusts" The Consultant then picked up his Diced
Watersnake-skin briefcase and prepared to leave.

"Wait!" cried Epiphanes, the Assistant Chief Librarian, "The
note is still too difficult to read. I can't tell if
Philopator wants the scrolls that are set out shelved, or
sharpened writing reeds set out. We must have more
improvements."

The Consultant shrugged and said that the advice already
given covered his retainer, and any additional information
would be at the extra charge of 800 drachmae per viable
conceptional articulation on his part. (3) He then studied
the note for a period of time, and suggested that Philopator
make a squiggle at the end of each complete item within the
note, and for the reader to pause slightly when reading it.
He furthermore suggested that the squiggle be a small mark
with a tail to distinguish it from an errant drop of
pigment. The note then read: "Shelve scrolls, set out
sharpened writing reeds, sweep out frogs locusts".

Epiphanes, still not satisfied, then asked how the reader
was to know the instructions had ended. Was there to be,
say, a double squiggle to indicate a longer pause? The
Consultant, after adding an extra 450 drachmae to his bill,
suggested that the ending squiggle not have a tail to
indicate the end of the message. (4) The message now looked
like this: "Shelve scrolls, set out sharpened writing
reeds, sweep out frogs locusts."

"What's a frog locusts?" asked Neos Dionysus, the Third
Assistant Librarian. This shocked everyone since Neos
Dionysus rarely said anything, and was usually back in the
stacks looking at the illustrated Greek manuscripts that
Ptolemy III had commandeered in 240 B.C.(5) from a Greek
holiday excursion trireme that spent a great deal of time
away from port.

The Consultant, rapidly adding several drachmae to his bill,
suggested that articles be added to written communication
for clarity.(6) Oddly enough, this had never occurred to
anyone before this. The message now read: "Shelve the
scrolls, set out the sharpened writing reeds, and sweep out
the frogs and locusts."

The library then functioned remarkably well for a number of
years. Unfortunately, the library's style book was
destroyed by woodworms several centuries later and Ben
Jonson, in "English Grammar" published in 1617 is now given
(false) credit for the innovation of syntactical
punctuation.

(1) 3M Corporation later used the same basic technique in
manufacturing the ubiquitous Post-Its.

(2) Yes, Consultants were invented before punctuation. How
else do you think things got done in six days?

(3) This is now known as the "Boeing/Lockheed Justification"
and is considered to be the root of the modern concept of
the cost-overrun.

(4) The Assistant Librarians argued for years over what this
ending mark should be called. The Assistant Librarians from
the left bank of the Nile wanted to call it one thing, and
the Assistant Librarians from the right bank of the Nile
wanted to call it another. While the original terms are
lost in the obscurity of history, people on the left side of
the water are still arguing with people on the right side of
the water over this and other terms.

(5) Ptolemy III did not, of course, know that it was 240
B.C. at the time. He only knew that it was a Tuesday.

(6) This slippery slide into excessive wordage led to the
Papyrus Reduction Act of 299 BC, but - since the Act was
never written down - there is no extant record of it today.
The author is, frankly, guessing about this.

I hope this helps, Sis. If you're interested, I can cover
the history of other punctuation marks in other letters. I
can keep writing tilde cows come home if you like.

--
Tony Cooper aka: tony_co...@yahoo.com
Provider of Jots and Tittles

Tony Cooper

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Mar 15, 2002, 12:29:25 AM3/15/02
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Tony Cooper wrote:
>
> (6) This slippery slide into excessive wordage led to the
> Papyrus Reduction Act of 299 BC, but - since the Act was
> never written down - there is no extant record of it today.
> The author is, frankly, guessing about this.

My error. That should have been 199 B.C. I hate to get
historical facts wrong.

Matti Lamprhey

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Mar 15, 2002, 5:21:21 AM3/15/02
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"Tony Cooper" <tony_co...@yahoo.com> wrote...

> Tony Cooper wrote:
> >
> > (6) This slippery slide into excessive wordage led to the
> > Papyrus Reduction Act of 299 BC, but - since the Act was
> > never written down - there is no extant record of it today.
> > The author is, frankly, guessing about this.
>
> My error. That should have been 199 B.C. I hate to get
> historical facts wrong.

We're all laughing too hard to notice, Tony!

Matti


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