In the year 200: no chunking, no cueing

Behold Papyrus 46—or P46 as the experts call it—a Greek manuscript penned around 200 AD containing a portion of the New Testament with almost no chunking or cueing.

Actually, P46 wasn’t penned, as there were no pens in the year 200. Just fragile reeds, shaved and sliced at their ends to absorb the ink scratched onto a sheet or a roll of papyrus letter-by-letter until the reed bent or broke and the scribe started anew.

Little wonder, then, the ancient document’s dearth of what communication experts call chunking and cueing. The concepts are similar but not identical.

Chunking visually groups sections of content. A box, for example, is a chunking technique visually communicating that the content within the box belongs together and is distinct from surrounding content.

Cueing provides visual clues to meaning. In the earliest web pages, underlined text in bright blue cued the reader that the text was a link; the same text in purple cued that the link had been visited.

I find only 2 examples of these communication techniques in P46:

  • The page number at the top of the document is set apart from the rest of the content with a double-line space—a simple example of chunking.
  • There are several nomina sacra, 2‑letter abbreviations of holy names marked with short overlines, in the content—a very subtle example of cueing.

It’s what the scribe excluded that’s remarkable to our 21st-century eyes: No boxes, no color, no horizontal rules, no subheads, no paragraphs, no punctuation, not even spaces between words cueing their ends and beginnings. Just letter after letter after letter, applied with what must have been great difficulty, patience and care, given the fragility of the scribe’s writing instrument.

Seems strange to us, this style bereft of style. But surely not to the document’s audience. Surely no 3rd-century priest received the anxiously awaited copy, laid eyes upon it and remarked, “Hmm. Needs visual structure.” P46 had all the visual structure its audience had come to expect, given their experience with other documents.

And so, our scribe introduces us to 2 principles, 2 takeaways that set the stage for all of The Elements Of Digital Style:

Experience forms expectation.

The tools make the rules.

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