Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 20 2017 02:00PM

Back in my college days, when I was a pedantically obsessive copy editor on the student newspaper, a friend claimed to have overheard me say, “I love commas.” I do not remember saying this, but I could have, because I do. Love commas, I mean. And semi-colons. And other forms of punctuation. And all the rules for using them. And also grammar – which is not the same as punctuation, though the two are often conflated.


No wonder, then, that I was delighted when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America drew my attention to this blog post (a year old, but new to me), in which Adam J. Calhoun, a post-doctoral fellow in neuroscience at Princeton, analyzes the punctuation patterns in some classic novels, including Pride and Prejudice.


Calhoun’s project was inspired by a line of posters displaying all the punctuation marks – and nothing but the punctuation marks – from various classic books, P&P among them. (“Great literature without all those bothersome words,” as one commenter on Calhoun's work remarked.)


Among the handful of novels Calhoun spotlights, Austen’s punctuation doesn’t stand out; P&P is heavier on commas than early twentieth-century novels (Ulysses, A Farewell to Arms) but in line with other nineteenth-century works (Frankenstein, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn). No big surprise there – though, given how vividly Austen’s dialogue stays in the memory, it is a bit surprising that she’s not an especially energetic user of quotation marks.


For me, however, the most appealing part of Calhoun’s post is the heat maps he’s constructed, which create a visual record of each book’s punctuation patterns by assigning a color to each type of punctuation mark. The results look like a cross between an Abstract Expressionist painting (Rothko by way of Pollock?) and the static on a malfunctioning TV.


The heat maps are quite beautiful, and they do tell you that P&P is very different from, say, Ulysses. Then again, P&P is also very different from Frankenstein, but their heat maps are quite similar – so those bothersome words may be rather important, after all.


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