Session Start
Points to Ponder - November 1994

Points to Ponder


Have you ever wondered why the King James Version of the Holy Bible doesn't use quotation marks? Simple--they didn't exist! The translators finished their work in 1611, and quotation marks weren't invented until later that century. At that time, they were used to start each line of quoted text. Later, marks were placed only at the beginning and end of the quoted material. Curiously, the older tradition was revived in USENET postings (frequently seen on the Internet), and it is now common E-mail practice to begin every line of a quoted message with a right angle bracket (>).

The dictionary defines punctuation as "The use of standard marks and signs in writing and printing to separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases in order to clarify meaning." Together with accents (^,`,",~), special characters such as the ampersand (&), and symbols such as the asterisk (*), they form the analphabetic marks of our written language.

Early Greeks had no punctuation, spaces between letters, or lowercase letters, and used boustrophedonic writing, literally, turning like an ox (bous) while plowing. In this system, one line is read right to left and the next left to right:

SIOHWUOYNIKSAMITSRIFNOSIOHWUOYGNILLETMI
ONFIRSTTHATSTHEMANSNAMETHATSWHOSENAME
TSRIFNOYUGEHTOHWEMLLETDNADAEHAOGLLEWSEY

The father of punctuation was probably Aristophanes of Byzantium--the librarian, not the playwright--in the third century B.C. His objective was to give the reader some clues as to how the text should be spoken--not to comply with rules of grammar (a purpose superimposed upon punctuation thousands of years later). He used a system of dots: the longest section (periodos) ended with a high dot, a medium section (colon) ended with a low dot (.), and a short section (comma) ended with a midlevel dot (·).

Many experiments in punctuation were tried by the Romans, and especially by monks in the Middle Ages, but punctuation rules had still not stabilized when Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type printing around 1452. You will find wide variations in punctuation among the incunabula, the 40,000 or so books printed before 1501. I have a reprint of the second book printed in English, William Caxton's translation of Game and Playe of the Chesse, published about 1476. There are no commas in the book. Where we would use a comma, a slash or virgule (/) divides the text. Over the next few centuries, the virgule shortened, dropped down, and gained a curve to become the modern comma (,).

American punctuation is still not cast in concrete, and it certainly could be improved. Why wait until the end of a sentence to discover it's a question? The Spanish start the sentence with an inverted question mark. That's clear enough. Why don't we do the same?

My favorite mark is the interrobang, created in the 1960s by Martin K. Speckter to combine the sense of a question mark (or interrogation point) and an exclamation point (or bang to a typesetter). "What the heck?!" is not well served by a single mark, and two are too many. But "You're what**" is clear as a bell.

A half century of computing has added precious little to the analphabetic toolbox of the modern writer. Your keyboard has perhaps two options not on a 1920 Remington typewriter: the backslash (\) and the pipe or bar (|), which may be solid or broken depending upon the font. Indeed, we have even lost a symbol, the cent sign, although blame for this should probably fall on the politicians who made cents meaningless. This is progress? Such pitiful creativity! Here we sit with the graphical power of laser printers, a Unicode with 64K possible characters, and programmable keyboards with CTRL, ALT, and ESC keys to supplement the traditional SHIFT, and all we have to show for it are \ and |. We should be ashamed.

We have the ability to create any new analphabetic mark we can imagine, and integrate it into our personal work. If enough folks find it useful, it will become a standard feature on 21st century keyboards. **What an opportunity this presents us!

I challenge you to create a mark that is so amazingly useful that future generations will wonder if written communication was even possible before you invented the Smithmark. Send us your entry; worthless prizes will be awarded based on arbitrary criteria.

Robert Bliss, Curmudgeon in Residence