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November 08, 2009
every comma counts

Behind the glass doors that seal the shelves along the walls in the most perfect space of this room, in this museum, among the colorful spines of the items in the children's book section, stands a slim volume by one "Leinstein" with the curious title, Punctuation in Verse.

What on earth is it?

One guy found out. George Burnham Ives
[b. 1856, Salem, MA; Harvard man, lawyer, then author, translator and, proofreader, and father of lawyer Frederick Manley Ives]

[Why, in 1890, did G.B. Ives leave the law, & rather abruptly at that?

The sordid details are here.]

     once got a peek at the publication. He wrote about it in 1921:
In connection with the "formal periodic arrangement" of sentences . . . this is, perhaps, a convenient place to refer to a rare little volume, called "Punctuation in Verse: or the Good Child's Book of Stops," by one Madame de Leinstein, of which there is a copy in the Children's Department of the New York Public Library; this copy, through the courtesy of Miss Annie Carroll Moore of that department, the writer was allowed to examine. It was printed in London, presumably a great many years ago, -- it bears no date, -- consists of only thirty-odd pages, of which one half are blanks, and is "Embellished with Twelve handsomely colored Engravings." The two couplets following (put in the mouth of "Cook Comma"), --
At the Comma, each reader should stay, and count one;
As, "Charles had an orange, a tart, and a bun."

At each Semicolon, take breath and count two;
As, "This is a Christian; that other, a Jew," --

[are those] with which the little books opens . . .

See Ives' Text, Type and Style: Compendium of Atlantic Usage, p. 59, herein.

One can read information about the wonderful Ms. Moore, Ives' courteous benefactress, here and here.

Last year, a writer for The Oxford Times provided additional clues about the contents of Leinstein's volume & its apparent agenda, here:

The earliest book entirely about English punctuation -- A Treatise of Stops, Points, or Pauses (1680) -- recommended that, when reading, you should count one when you reach a comma, two at a semi-colon, and four at a colon. Madame Leinstein's Punctuation in Verse; or, The Good Child's Book of Stops, published about 1825, disagreed: For the Colon count three -- for the Period, four; As, "The robin is dead: he now is no more."


What do we know about Madame Leinstein? Basically nothing.

We do know that Punctuation in Verse was not her only children's book.

Her 1826 Mamma's Tales; or Pleasing Stories of Childhood, Adapted to the Infant Mind, is on-line here. The book includes stories that begin like this:
Tom was a good boy, and he could not bear to see dumb animals ill used; but Sam was a bad boy, and he was fond of ill-treating every thing.

Can you guess, in general terms at least, how things end up for Sam?

On the other hand, she could also write sentences like the following, for non-children:
Comalvin is scarcely equal to the furious strokes of the monster; his strength, subdued by long suffering, gives way; he sinks upon his knee; the dreadful arm of Fin-Dallan is uplifted; his blade gleams wrathful above his head; "die!" he exclaims; Ilvena knows the voice, her hand graps the dagger rusted in Cuth-Ionor's blood; she makes suddenly between the combatants, and buries the weapon in Fin-Dallan's heart.

The foregoing is from her story, "The Fatal Scarf: A Legend of Cuth-Ionor," included in the 1840 collection, The Evening Museum: A Collection of Deeply Interesting Tales and Legends, Together with Several Affecting Narratives and Surprising Adventures, here.

How many (beats? seconds?) does she tell us to "count" at a comma? One.

And for a semicolon? Two.

The above passage from "Fatal Scarf" contains 4 commas and 7 semicolons. Thus, we should "count" at least to 18, as we read the above passage?


Madame Leinstein seems to have been one of those who would have advocated a function for punctuation in written English much like that of the rest in musical notation.

Why did written English never incorporate certain useful elements of musicial notation, such as the rest?

Or did it?

Rare books curator Paul Saenger (interviewed here), in his Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, conjures up a time when punctuation and notation were not so far apart, with common roots in the opening up of intratextual space:

The compatibility of punctuation and musical signs is evidence of the advantages for ocular movement and text perception that intratextual space afforded the oral reader who in the new medium could more readily decode not only the text's meaning but also indications for pitch, intonation, and tempo. Intratextual space was a prerequisite for maintaining an eye-voice span sufficiently broad to enable the fluent matching of syllable to pitch necessary for the performance of medieval chant.
(p. 36-37)

A historically blurred line between "words" and "musical notes" is easiest to consider in liturgical performance:

Early musical notation also consisted of interlinear letters and tironian word notes to indicate both pitch and tempo. As signs, they were at times identical to the letters used for the notation of syntax, and experienced scholars have more than once mistaken the one for the other. The same neurophysiological processes that necessitated space for the effective reception of signs for word sequence were required for the perception of these notae, which provided encoded information for the oral performance of liturgical texts.
(Saenger, p. 74)

Hebrew cantillation marks come to mind as a regularly observable example today of "musical" annotation in texts.

For written English in verse form, Julia Parker Dabney in her Musical Basis of Verse: A Scientific Study of the Principles of Poetic Composition
(1901, here) proposed use of musical notation to "cut the Gordian knot of scansion fairly in two." Dabney "notates" some Tennyson like this:

|        [quaver rest]    [quaver rest]    |         [quaver rest]    [quaver rest]     |        [quaver rest]    [quaver rest]    |

Break,                                                     break,                                                     break,

Several years later, Raymond Macdonald Alden commented on some of the obvious flaws in this method, in his Introduction to Poetry (1909).

Other ideas come along in Mallarmé, and Olson and "field poetics," about how to textually represent silence or a pause for breath, usually indeed through manipulation of intratextual blank space or layout/array on the page.


Leading away from Leinstein's Punctuation in a different direction could be the notion of a mathematical substratum to the reading experience.

Do we "count" as we read? Ought we to? Does each reader have a silent metronome that ticks away underneath the reading mind? Should our reading of punctuation conform to it, if so? Is reading-time elastic? Alden suggests it is. Even if so, does the phenomenlogy of reading involve a steady click track beneath the elasticity, as the ground against which the latter is measureable, perceptible?

TiR imagines one end result of this line of thought to be a world in which every page of text is recast to resemble a page of the Principia Mathematica -- or, to bring it back to music, certain scores by Elliott Carter, a former math teacher. As Masumi Rostad of the Pacifica Quartet put it several years back:
I like to joke that because of [Elliott's] rhythmic complexity, every bar ends up looking like I’m in school again taking a math quiz I didn’t study for.

In other words, this post may be a roundabout pointless way to ask: How does Elliott Carter read commas?