How to read

Speaking is instinctive, but writing is a technology: a code. Readers must decode the symbols that make up a text in order to understand its meaning. Over time, that code has evolved to become more complex. Writing changed because reading changed, and readers needed more information.

I believe in those changes, although not everyone does. The history of writing goes back about six thousand years, but I’ll start 2,000 years ago with Latin to explain my faith in innovations like punctuation.


How do you read this? Well, try reading it out loud.

That is how the Romans wrote 2,000 years ago: in scriptio continua or “continuous script” and in all upper-case letters (because that was all they had). It worked well enough since most readers in those days received patrician educations, which gave them strong language skills. Moreover, texts were few, and educated people knew most of them already. Writing often served merely as a reminder to aid in its declamation.

Then Rome became Christian, and Christianity spread using a written Bible and other texts. Monks in monasteries created copies, often beautifully illustrated but in variable handwriting, still in scriptio continoa, and sometimes without much skill in the Latin language. In 781 AD, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was worried about the decay of Christian learning, so he  persuaded the English monk Alcuin to help him reform education and create a standardized script.

One result was Carolingian minuscule, essentially the lower-case letters we use today; capital letters were reserved to distinguish the initial letters of sections. Alcuin also established custom of separating words with spaces to help readers with poor Latin skills distinguish them. Finally, he added punctuation to show where to pause when reading a text aloud.

Many marks were used throughout the Middle Ages, including periods, single dots, colons, semicolons, three dots, slashes (/, used as commas), double-slashes, and pilcrows (¶) — all employed without much standardization. Indentations, colored ink, initial letters, and other kinds of visual clues also aided the inexpert reader.

Until the Renaissance, though, writing still tended to serve as a means to help a reader declaim the text. Books were rare and expensive, and few people could read. Instead, people were read to by scholars and clergy.

Then in about 1450 AD Gutenberg invented movable type. Within a century Europe was filling up with moderately-priced printed books. This revolutionized access to books at the same time that literacy was becoming more common, so people began to read for pleasure, alone and silently. They often found themselves reading new, unfamiliar texts, and silent reading meant that they did not take the intermediate step of turning the marks on the page into voiced words whose inflection and pacing revealed meaning. Readers needed help.

So punctuation became standardized, it began to add specific grammatical information to the text, and more kinds of punctuation were invented, such as quotation marks, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation marks, and parentheses. Texts were separated into paragraphs. Eventually, English spelling became standardized (though not simplified, alas).


These evolutions have made reading easier, but they mean that writers must work harder. Punctuation no longer marks pauses, it marks grammatical meaning: a panda who “eats shoots and leaves” is not the same as one who “eats, shoots, and leaves.” Writers must learn complex grammar rules to know when to use commas (and to be able to debate the serial comma), and to use capital letters, italics, single quotes, double quotes, inverted quotes, hyphens, m-dashes, and all those other details that I have at times earned my living correcting as an editor and proofreader.

Some writers rebel against having to burden their creative process with the management all this labyrinthine code and “blot the page up with weird little marks,” as Cormac McCarthy says. I think this merely shifts the burden back to the reader, who has always had enough problems.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” I believe that good writers aren’t lazy writers. All these writing codes, developed over the centuries, exist to help the reader. It’s an honor to have readers, and I believe they deserve the best-encoded text I can produce.

Sue Burke

Sue Burke Ha publicado 62 entradas.

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