In January of 1776, a small book by a recent immigrant to America took the colonies by storm. Entitled Plain Truth Addressed to the Inhabitants of America Containing Remarks on a Late Pamphlet entitled Common Sense, the pamphlet was published in all the major cities of the colonies and in short order was found virtually everywhere.
Even then, the pamphlet was known by a much shorter name – Common Sense – and it made the author Thomas Paine famous. It was one of America’s first best sellers, and it was one of the final catalysts that drove the colonial leaders to seek independence from Britain.
What made Paine’s little pamphlet so readable was a wondrous innovation – printed emphasis. Paine used italic letters to set certain important statements apart from the rest of his text, and he utilized punctuation to simulate spoken speech. The readers could then almost hear the text as it should be read.
It is remarkable to think that before Paine, punctuation existed in a kind of willy-nilly world of irregularity. Just read the King James Bible or an early edition of Shakespeare and you can see what I mean. The punctuation really has nothing to do with how to read the text.
Paine’s pamphlet could be read easily, by people who would not normally read such things. It was even read out as a sermon in a church in Connecticut (although that may have been more from the laziness of the vicar than from the quality of the pamphlet).
Never discount the little flourishes and touches. By adding commas and italicizing important statements, Thomas Paine gave a revolution its voice. He set his message apart, and people took it to heart. Changing the world is not just about big ideas. It is also about little details that make those ideas accessible and comprehensible.