As writers, we’re endlessly fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of authors and the way they use punctuation. Yet how much can the way authors use punctuation really reveal about their style? Plenty, it turns out.
Over on Medium, Adam Calhoun decided to strip eight of his favorite novels down to just the punctuation. The novels he chose were James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!.
Like previous efforts to cut away everything but punctuation from famous novels, this left just a stream-of-consciousness staccato of commas, periods, question marks, quotation marks, and the occasional semi-colon to represent each book. But instead of merely turning his efforts into pretty posters, Calhoun actually analyzed them, visualizing the punctuation of these novels in a way that put their punctuation use in perspective.
His resulting charts aren’t visually sophisticated, but they are informative. For example, in one chart, Calhoun visualizes punctuation density, or how many words (on average) an author puts in a row before he throws in a punctuation mark. Surprisingly, Hemingway actually uses punctuation more densely than Jane Austen, William Faulkner, or Charles Dickens, a finding that might have more to do with Hemingway’s short, crisp sentences than anything else.
Calhoun also breaks down each novel by most-used punctuation mark, highlighting each author’s favorite. Commas and periods tend universally to be the most used marks, but some authors have a fondness for apostrophes (Mark Twain), exclamation points (Lewis Carroll), and semi-colons (William Faulkner).
My favorite charts, however, are Calhoun’s heat maps, which assign colors to different punctuation marks (periods and question marks are red, commas and quotation marks are green, semicolons and colons are blue) and then simply places them in order. It really helps show how much more well-rounded some authors are (Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens) with punctuation than others (Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce), as well as surface surprising patterns, like the bright streak of red running through the middle of Huckleberry Finn.
The best thing about Calhoun’s experiments is that he has made the code freely available for taking the text of your favorite book and getting a breakdown of how it uses punctuation. If you’ve got the chops, try it for yourself.
Cover Photo: via Shutterstock