Author, Book review, HQ, Michael Arndt, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Snails & Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols’ by Michael Arndt

Non-fiction – hardcover; HQ; 160 pages; 2022.

And now for something completely different.

As a self-confessed “word nerd” (and someone who has just spent the best part of eight weeks writing a copy style guide in my new role at work), I couldn’t resist buying Michael Arndt’s Snails & Monkey Tails when I saw it on the shelves of my local independent bookstore.

This delightfully designed reference book is for anyone interested in language and typography. It’s ideal for flicking through and delving into on an ad-hoc basis, but I actually read it cover to cover — and found it absolutely fascinating.

There’s a quirky, fun element to the design — which uses a muted colour palette of black, white, grey and a vibrant eye-popping red — that adds to the experience.  (To get a glimpse of the book’s design, check out this article in the Design Observer which reproduces many of the spreads.)

Featuring 14 standard punctuation marks in the English language, as well as a range of commonly used symbols, the book explains their origins and provides helpful tips on grammatical usage.

I deal with punctuation every day (some may laughingly say I just move commas around and correct people’s spelling!) and thought I knew a lot about my “tools of the trade”, but I learned a lot.

For instance, the Italians call the @ symbol a snail (chiocciola) and the Germans call it a monkey’s tail (affenschwanz), hence the book’s title.

The ¶ symbol, which is one of my favourites (perhaps because it’s an “invisible” in Adobe InDesign and pleasingly shows the start of every new paragraph), is called a pilcrow and was originally used to mark chapter headings or capitula (chapters / little heads).

Pilcrows were rubricated (lettered in red, from the Latin rubricare, to redden) by medieval monks known as rubricators to indicate the beginning of paragraphs.

If you have ever wondered why paragraphs are indented, it’s because:

Indents in medieval manuscripts left room for pilcrows, to be added by hand, even after the invention of the printing press. Eventually, the rubricated mark was abandoned, though the indentation remains.

Other fascinating facts:

  • The & symbol (ampersand) is derived from blending together the letters e and t
  • The #, which I call a “hash”, is also called a pound sign, number sign and octothorpe
  • Until 1970, the ! (exclamation point) did not have its own key on the typewriter — instead, you had to backspace and type an apostrophe over a full stop to create one (I have a vague memory of doing this on my dad’s old Olivetti when I was a child)
  • There was once a symbol called an “interrobang” (), which was a fusion of the question mark and the exclamation point to express incredulity, and was invented by an advertising executive in 1962 but fell out of favour about a decade later.

I also discovered why many writers annoyingly type two spaces at the end of every sentence (which I then have to delete). It’s a habit or “rule” left over from the days of using typewriters. Fonts on typewriters were monospaced so two spaces were needed after a full stop, but today’s computer technology optically corrects this so only one space is needed.

Finally, Snails & Monkey Tails has a helpful glossary of terms and a useful index. It even shows how to type the correct characters on a Mac and Windows PC using shortcuts and/or unicodes if there’s no glyph palette to help you. This is a terrific little book and one that I have proudly added to my small stash of books about grammar, writing and language usage that I have collected over the course of my career.