Grammar buffs may love their commas and apostrophes. But, day to day, punctuation marks are the unappreciated workhorses of textual communication.
Data visualization artist Nicholas Rougeux's new project, "Between the Words," shines a spotlight on the punctuation of classic novels, and though he comes from what he describes as a "grammatically correct upbringing," zeroing in on punctuation marks was something of a happy mistake.
Inspired in part by Stefanie Posavec's Writing Without Words project, which explored classic books through a number of creative data visualizations, Rougeux began playing with new approaches. "The challenge was to find a new direction," he told The Huffington Post in an email, "because she already explored so many interesting options."
In the course of his tinkering, Rougeux "ended up accidentally removing all the letters in some text and saw that the punctuation left behind was interesting in its own right," he wrote. His finished visualizations, which use free text from Project Gutenberg, cluster the punctuation in a long spiral toward a center illustration, the whole novel in parentheses and dashes on one canvas.
Rougeux doesn't have any bold claims for what his graphics reveal about literature, writing, "I'm not sure anything revolutionary is revealed." But in the absence of what we most often focus on -- the words -- we're able to see how different authors put punctuation to work in telling their stories, and how even such simple marks might ebb and flow over the course of a single narrative.
"There seems to be an abundance of exclamation marks in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol," he pointed out, "probably because of so many expressions of surprise or loud reactions throughout the stories." Fitting, for books with fantastical elements and a strong appeal to younger audiences.
Meanwhile, James Joyce's Ulysses seems to follow none of the common patterns, frequently breaking into strings of parentheses and dashes. "The last episode is most notable for its lack of punctuation in just a couple run-on sentences," pointed out Rougeux. "The last few slashes and hyphens in the center of that poster are all that make up the last episode." In comparison to the more traditional novels in his project, most of which are littered with dense passages of quotation marks, even the punctuation in Ulysses signals its experimental nature.
Rougeux told HuffPost he hopes to branch out into poetry for future punctuation graphics, such as Edgar Allan Poe. What would "The Raven" say if it only had exclamation points and em dashes?
View the full collection at Rougeux's website.
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