BRYONY QUINN is a writer, editor and lecturer based in the UK. bmbquinn[at] ABOUT BQ.

ALL PROJECTS —— [2015] OBLIQUE/OBLIKE is a collection of essays devoted to obliquity. Texts include: a speculative etymology, O-OB-OBLIKE, which reads into the conceptual, logical, textural and metaphorical potential of the word “oblique”; a contextual history of the forward slash, A TYPOGRAPHIC CHRONICLE OF STOPS AND STARTS; a series of fragment essays with photographs (HOW TO CROSS A SLOPE) that consider definitions of spatial and architectural inclination on the body; AERIAL OBLIQUITY, a text exploring perceptual shifts, impostor landscapes and the military units set-up for photographic interpretation at the start of the 20th century; a critical reading of Richard McGuire’s comic HERE and other narratives in art and literature that open windows (or tunnel out or fold or fling) the past into the future; and an extract from a slideshow of images and ideas — things that prop versus things that lean — designated as OBLIQUE OBJECTS. This project follows a general notion that lines of thought may not be perpendicular but that does not mean that they are random. [2015] ALBERTOPOLIS COMPANION is a book, website and series of podcasts that write around and over the South Kensington complex of Victorian institutes and museums that were built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (an area colloquially known as Albertopolis). The essay, ALBERT-O-POLIS, draws a critical cross-section of the words facetious coining and usage. [2014] OF AND FOR TURNER CONTEMPORARY is a series of essays, an event and a website generated in collaboration between Margate’s Turner Contemporary museum, David Chipperfield Architects and the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art. Prompted by the lines “On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, GAPS is an essay that looks for architectural and figurative breaches in the museum and surrounding landscape. [2014] ROLLING HILLS, ROLLING RS makes use of the multiplicity of the word “cadence”, from vocal modulations to topographic undulations. This text appeared in CRITICAL WRITING IN ART & DESIGN masters programme at the RCA: a very short and very disappointed REVIEW OF MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS AT THE BARBICAN; THE BELLS OF LONDON ARE TIME MACHINES (which also appeared on; VIBES, PROPER TO MAKE ANY TONE — part-etymology and part-retrieval for the word “vibes” in cultural criticism, as per the likes of Samuel Pepys and Woody Allen. [2010–2015] OTHER BITS of published writing include AN INTERVIEW WITH NELLY BEN HAYOUN for issue one of NOWNESS on the occasion of Trevor Paglen launching THE LAST PICTURES into geostrationary orbit. And here are all the articles I ever wrote for IT’S NICE THAT.


When you are an oblique, you lean thus:


Leaning from bottom left to top right it is significant shorthand — vital punctuation — in a readable environment not least in language and typography. A sash, a slash, a heraldic bend, when scored over a word or image it is the internationally recognised sign for prohibited activity and, on English roads, it stands for both stop and go-on (at national speed limit, of course). With the ability of the diagonal to literally and figuratively divert the eye or mind when it appears, and as one of the earliest marks of oral delivery within a sentence, it has especial importance. Adorno writes of such punctuation, ‘instead of diligently serving the interplay between language and the reader, they serve, hieroglyphically, an interplay that takes place in the interior of language, along its own pathways’.

On the page/stone/tablet it is the most discreet and discrete mark to make; pen or chisel, the broad nib or sharp edge of the writing tool meets the surface at such an angle that the impression is the lightest – coming close-to but never touching another mark. Despite its lean-ness, the stroke — virgule sursum erecta — stands in and stands for a multitude of things: a fence for neighbouring alternatives (as in and/or); a separation of elements but also a difference between things (and it is in-between: b/w); it marks fractions and ratios (read variously as ‘of’, ‘per’, ‘over’, ‘with’, ‘divided-by’); and, unlike any other punctuation mark, the oblique is occasionally spoken aloud with the alarming insertion of ‘slash’ or ‘stroke’ in otherwise unremarkable sentences. Consider, ‘a forward-slash-backward motion’. Even when it is not vocally registered, the oblique is frequently accompanied by a hand gesture that slices the air. It is a strange little skeuomorph of punctuation. Though gesture is an extension of how we speak, we do not, for example, punch the air at the end of every sentence, cough at commas or wave our arms for parenthesis.

At individual moments the oblique — more properly known on the written page as the virgule (from the Latin for ‘twig’) — performs its function with such acuity that, like the tiny paper cut it resembles, its significance can go unremarked for some time. And/or rather, it may be considered less a cut than a sharp edge on which numbers, words, sentences are balanced. Things that were once whole — complete ideas — are suddenly made part. Form is divided and yet extended as individual meanings are relit when turned suffix or prefix to another word or idea; in particular when it is used to describe a person, such as ‘a scholar’s vanity/insecurity’. The use of the oblique between such qualifiers suggests a balance/tension in one person where the lean of one word is no more than the one beside it can support. Similarly, one word might prop up the other.

The oblique mark could not be more delicately poised in a Prop vs. Lean than by a writer as sensitised to grammar as David Foster Wallace. In Tense Present, that eminent essay-review of usage, Foster Wallace employs virgules in a prismatic equipoise-of-a-sentence to evaluate an Official Complaint made against him as a teacher. By using more than one, the writer tasks the reader with registering each stroke and interpreting the mutuality/exclusivity/accumulativeness of his character:

’The problem I failed to see, of course, lay not with the argument per se but with the person making it – namely me, a Privileged WASP Male in a position of power, thus someone whose statements about the primacy and utility of the Privileged WASP Male dialect appeared not candid/hortatory/authoritative/true but elitist/high-handed/authoritarian/racist.’

In Garner’s Modern American Usage (a book which, incidentally, Foster Wallace is reviewing highly in his essay), Brian A. Garner makes a concise yet grudging list of forward-slash functions but states quickly that ‘the virgule is a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing’. In all its uses, he continues, ‘there’s almost always a better choice than the virgule. Use it as a last resort’. On this matter he is distinctly out of accord with Adorno who laments ‘among the losses that are punctuation’s share in the decay of language is the slash mark’. Both sides may be generalised by the fact that other marks of punctuation can and do replace the virgule in modern text: these offenders are most frequently the en- and em-dashes and commas and, of course, the words ‘and’ and ‘or’.

A typographic chronicle of the virgule is actually a history of reading in starts and stops and goes some way in explaining its literal diminution to the nicks in the flow of a sentence. Printing technology would eventually standardise how an oblique of modern use would appear on the page but in the earliest calligraphic instances, a simple pen stroke at an angle of 20° to 45° above the horizontal was invariably used to indicate a medial pause. In the aptly titled book Pause and Effect, M.B. Parkes explains the practice of Buoncompagno da Signa (1165-1240) who promoted a system of just two marks of punctuation, a veritable slash-and-dash method: ‘suspensivus “which is written by a virgula standing upright” […] to indicate where the sense is incomplete, and planus “which is written by a level virgula” (virgula plana i.e. — ) where the sense is complete’. To this simple kit add the slightly later ‘double virgula’ — // — used by scribes before a sententia to indicate the beginning of a paragraph, proposition, stanza or section, and as an indicator to the rubricator. This man, whose job it was to ‘mark in red’ a capital letter or pilcrow (¶), often left the marks untouched and so it became a piece of punctuation in itself. These two obliques could be, Parke writes, ‘interpreted as the consequence of a final pause and used as such’. The last resort, indeed. Eventually that tired diagonal, the planus, would fall out of use, as would the double virgule. What was left was a space; an indented line and a new strophe or paraph: started.

Modern treatises hint at a connection between the medieval virgule and the modern dash though this is without proper evidence, if not apocryphal. Keith Houston, writer of Shady Characters (a book prompted by the curious pilcrow to which the double virgule now has a familial attachment), has collected such citations. ‘In the Fraktur variant of blacklister text’, he quotes, The Visual Dictionary of Typography claims ‘two virgules represented a dash’. Despite how visually similar the en- or the em-dash are to the planus, the origin of the mark itself, he concludes, is simply confused. And yet Houston’s own unsubstantiated theory is sympathetic to a visual association that would see slash become dash: ‘I suspect that the virgula plana and the dash are one and the same mark, and that the virgula plana’s function as a major pause is the ancestor of the dash’s modern use to surround parenthetical clauses, which, when spoken, warrant a pause on either side’.

Meanwhile, the minor pause given by a singular virgule was superseded sometime in the 1520s by the comma whose lineage is most apparent in France where that particular mark—so like a young tree shoot—is known as la virgule.

There are other, various, marks in written language to which a description of oblique may be applied but not defined. There is the canted hyphen, for instance, and the tilt of the dash as it appears in many calligraphic scripts. Typographers working in Renaissance times would insert a canted hyphen to give a touch of ‘scribal variety’ to the typeset page before the level hyphen was made the ‘bland, anonymous’ norm. This upward inflection to the marks is a deliberate lightening of the line so as to appear inconspicuous against the graphic hand. Such was the angle of the writing tool that, as mentioned previously, the effectiveness of the mark at all was that it might insert itself between letters with the least resistance – like a knife between ribs. The dash by definition (to ‘strike forcibly against’) would seem a heavy-handed tool for the job (and yet it is the oblique that is accompanied by the striking hand gesture).

Illustration by Sigmund V. Weech from Wie Schreibe Ich Schrift (1961)

The occidental letters from Medieval and Renaissance hands that owe their ‘significant and beautiful forms’ to the broad-nibbed pen — those made of strokes that swell and constrict as the square edge of the tool traces bowls, ascenders, ears, terminals et cetera — were developed for use by and for the right hand. Simply, the nib-stroke angle is right-handed. This lateral bias has been carried through the standard terminology for typography and printing as with the action of ‘justifying’ type to space it evenly so that it meets the right margin in a straight line: when ‘justify’ means to ‘do justice to’, and ‘just’ means ‘law’ and ‘right’. So it is a pleasingly oblique admission then, that when / appears away from the page, the tilt of this particular line is actually ‘sinister’; AKA, left.

The definition comes from heraldry: the bend (as this particular oblique is known) is dictated by the barer. The ‘bend sinister’ would appear on a shield marking from a man’s left shoulder to their right hip (or rather, sinister chief to dexter base) and would have been worn by the bastard son of a Royal. The oblique as it is seen is a digression of ascendency – to the left side of the family. This lateralisation of legitimacy is also present in the awkward and indeterminate use of the word ‘gauche’ and ‘gaucheness’ or in attributions of something ‘leftish’ or ‘leftward’. Etymologically, in English, the word ‘left’ is weak; in French it is underhand; in Italian it is present in askance; and in German, perhaps most interesting of all, as a past participle of ‘leave’, it may explain why a bastard would receive familial recognition at all in its derivative from ‘allow to remain’ or ‘leave in place’.

So how might a sinistral reading of the oblique be reapplied to the written page or the spoken word – this history of reading in stops and starts? A (western) page of text is, all at once, a single thread of information broken into lines as columns and connected by invisible diagonals along which our eyes shuttle. By unconscious crosswise leaps from left to right, Michel Butor writes in his essay ‘The Book As Object’, each ‘line of writing, hence each continuous movement of the eye, would correspond to a unit of meaning, of hearing; the time the eye takes to skip from one line to the next would represent a pause in the speaking voice’. This is, he states, the significant superiority of writing over any other means of record as ‘the simultaneous exposure to our eyes of what our ears can grasp only sequentially’.

(end of extract)