Hyphens, Hauntings, and the Architecture of Sentences

Outside the James Brice House, purportedly the most haunted structure in Historic Annapolis, night had nearly fallen, and it felt as though the brick-lined streets—once trod by no less than Founding Fathers—were themselves absorbing the last of the daylight.

I stood among the skeptics and believers assembled for one of the city’s nightly ghost tours, and emerging wraith-like from the guide’s tales of hauntings past and present, a particular word caught my attention.

The guide had referred to the connecting passages between the wings of the “Big Brice House” as hyphens.

Apparently I love horror and punctuation matters in equal measure.

Far from a student of architecture, I’d never heard the term hyphen refer to part of a structure, but of course it made complete sense. The hyphens I work with are connectors as well, connecting syllables and words, prefixes and suffixes to roots, fragments ripped unceremoniously apart by end-of-line breaks.

Even creepier, suspended hyphens appear to connect words to thin air, but those seemingly empty spaces are in fact haunted by words that aren’t visible, but which nonetheless occupy that space, if only in our mind’s eye.

Mr. Hyphen, I Presume

For a book, going out of print can be a kind of death, and while digitization has made books more accessible, even instantly accessible, printed works can still (and do) go missing from the world—or they become exceedingly rare, moving into that hard-to-find territory you used to reserve for absinthe or Cuban cigars.

Such was the case with Meet Mr. Hyphen and Put Him in His Place by Edward N. Teall. In her book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris mentioned this work, calling it the “best thing ever written about hyphens.”

Teall’s book was also referenced on the Merriam-Webster website, where I learned that the folks at my favorite dictionary had introduced Norris to Mr. Hyphen.

I searched for the book in vain, finding it had gone out of print, but earlier this year, at the American Copy Editors Association (ACES) conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I bumped into Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski on an elevator and asked him about it. He responded that he had a copy of the book sitting on his office desk, and he encouraged me to continue my search, insisting that I should have no trouble finding it.

Reenergized, I did indeed locate a copy, though obtaining it was a bit pricey. I work with a number of talented typesetters and would like to make it more easily available, but from what I can see there are some concerns about whether the 1936 work is in the public domain (in that time period, it hinges on whether the book’s copyright was renewed, and I haven’t been able to research that yet).

The search for Mr. Hyphen made obtaining it all the more enjoyable, though, and I would encourage anyone who is able to lay hands on it to give it a read. Its corporal form may be fading from the world, but its spirit is strong, and Mr. Hyphen should be rattling his chains and bumping around the attic for years and years to come.

The Blueprint of a Sentence

While an architect might use a blueprint to assemble a structure, a writer can refer to a sentence diagram to see the underlying grammatical arrangement. Earlier this year, at the above-mentioned ACES conference, a ghost from the past—sentence diagramming—leapt out at me in the form of a session (“How to Diagram Sentences—and Why”) conducted by Bremner Editing Center coordinator Lisa McLendon.

Someone outside the editing community might harbor an understandable skepticism about a group of adults having a grand old time while diagramming sentences, but I witnessed the phenomenon firsthand, and if you haven’t diagrammed a sentence since childhood (or ever) I’d highly recommend grabbing a blank sheet of paper and a writing implement.

If you want a little help getting started, pick up a copy of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. You can almost hear the cackling of that elementary school teacher, that terror of your youth, can’t you?

Bigger on the Inside

Elaborate literary construction entwined with a fictional structure hiding infinite space can be found in Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterpiece House of Leaves. Incorporating unreliable narrators, found manuscripts, academic study, extensive footnotes, letters from a psychiatric hospital, and references to a documentary film that may or may not exist, House of Leaves is as haunting a novel, if it can be called a novel, as I’ve ever read.

Haunting as well is Danielewski’s proposed 27-volume series, The Familiar. Four volumes have been released to date, with another scheduled to be published this Halloween. Beautiful works constructed to replicate the viewing experience of such bingeable TV shows as Breaking Bad, fans of typography (and all readers) should not deny themselves the pleasure of exploring this ambitious series.

Hauntings and Structure

In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey explores the idea that unusual architectural features are closely connected to hauntings.

“Ghosts fester in places untended to, where the usual patterns of behavior aren’t or can’t be enforced, where once-regular places become strange, where it’s no longer clear what a building’s function was, where the shadows multiply and nothing restricts your mind from projecting your thoughts and dreams and nightmares onto the walls and corridors.”

That passage puts me in mind of the great writer Peter Straub, whose literary stylings and intricate constructions birth horrors both supernatural and all too real. Writers can look to the structure of their sentences, their paragraphs, their chapters, to see how that architecture serves as a viewing screen for the projections of their readers’ fears and deepest desires.

Sentences are built, like homes, with words as the materials of construction. Sometimes a structure has a good foundation but needs to be knocked flat so the writer can build anew on the palimpsest-like ghost of the old. Writers should never be afraid to tear down their homes and build grander mansions. Those previous structures remain, if unseen, haunting always the new works they have spawned.

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