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A History Of Punctuation


"The Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A nuf here and they may pepper and salt it as they please."
-Lord Timothy Dexter

Wikipedia defines punctuation marks as "written symbols that do not correspond to either phonemes (sounds) of a spoken language, nor to lexemes (words and phrases) of a written language, but which serve to organize or clarify written language. The rules of what punctuation marks should be used in what circumstances vary with language, location and time." These rules are constantly evolving and certain aspects of punctuation are style - the author's choice.

In her award-winning "The Basic Cozy Punctuation Course", Marie Rackham puts it this way: "Punctuation is used, in printing and writing, to imitate speech. When we speak we use voice inflections, stops, pauses, and even body language to indicate our meaning. For example, when we ask a question our voice rises at the end of a sentence. This inflective rise is a vocal question mark. When we make a statement our voice drops at the end of the sentence. This inflective drop is a vocal period. When we verbally list items we pause after each item. This verbal pause is a vocal comma."

The Origins Of Punctuation

Timothy Dexter (1747-1806), a prominent citizen of eighteenth century New England, wrote his best-known book, "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones", remarkably without a single punctuation mark. After the first printing sold out, Dexter, in deference to demanding readers, amended the second edition by adding periods, commas, semicolons and other punctuation. There was one small catch, however: rather than disperse punctuation throughout the text, Dexter added a page of "stops" containing nothing but punctuation marks, along with a short message for readers to "pepper and salt it as they please."

Like Dexter's book, the earliest hieroglyphic and alphabetic inscriptions had no punctuation symbols at all. No commas to indicate pauses and no periods between sentences. In fact, there weren’t even spaces between words. Nor did the early Greek and Roman writers use any form of punctuation. Knowing exactly how to read the words, where to put the intonations, pauses, etc., was an art, and one that required practice.

Aristophanes of Byzantium (c.448-385 BC) The first recognized formal system of punctuation was developed by the Greek scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian at Alexandria around 200 B.C. His system used only a set of three points of varying heights (distinctiones): media distinctio placed mid-level, serving the function of a comma (a short pause); subdistinctio level with the text, serving the function of a colon or semicolon (a longer pause); and distinctio placed near the top of a line of text, to mark a very long pause (though not necessarily the end of a sentence).

Aristophanes' system was never widely used, however, and by the first century B.C., the only punctuation really in use were occasional interpuncts, which the Romans used to indicate word divisions in formal inscriptions, such as those found on buildings and monuments. The interpunct was a small middle dot vertically centered between words, e.g. DONA·NOBIS·REQVIEM. Interpuncts were perhaps the first consistent visual representation of word boundaries in a written language.

Ancient Greek, by contrast, had not developed interpuncts; all the letters ran together. So, when a wave of enthusiasm for Greek scholarship, language and culture swept ancient Rome, the use of interpuncts died out. Some time after that nearly all writing returned to scriptio continua, that is, no spaces, breaks, or other distinguishing marks between words.

The use of spaces (  ) for interword separation didn't appear until much later, roughly 600-800 AD. By the seventh century, the convention was quite common. In some early medieval manuscripts, two vertically aligned dots represented a full stop at the end of a sentence. Eventually one of the dots was dropped, and the remaining dot served as a period, colon or comma, depending on whether it was aligned with the top, middle, or base of the lowercase letters.

The hyphen (-) was introduced around the eleventh century, to indicate that a word was continued on the next line, but these word breaks were not at natural syllables as they are today. In recent years, the use of hyphens has been steadily declining, both in popular writing and in scholarly journals. Its use is almost always avoided by those who write advertising copy or labels on packaging, since they are often more concerned with visual cleanliness than semantic clarity.

The pilcrow (¶), commonly referred to as the paragraph symbol, is a non-alphabetic symbol used as an indent for separate paragraphs, or to designate a new paragraph in one long piece of copy. The pilcrow was used in medieval times to mark a new train of thought, before the convention of using paragraphs was commonplace. The pilcrow is commonly drawn like a backwards letter P with an extra full-height stem, but may also be drawn with the round area stretching further downwards, more like a backwards D.

According to Malcolm B. Parkes's "Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West", the pilcrow is a symbol for 'paraph' (which can also be marked by a double-slash, or a full-height cent-like sign), and it started as a 'C', for capitulum. Parkes also says that the pilcrow replaced the 'paragraphus', which was marked in various ways, including a section symbol. Quotations of the term 'pilcrow' date back to circa 1440, however, the history of the word is obscure.

The English Contribution

Alcuin of York (735-804) After the fall of Rome, Western Europe lapsed into illiteracy and entered a long period of intellectual apathy. Kings could not read; bishops could not spell; writing became chaotic. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was deeply concerned and in 781 A.D., he summoned the help of English deacon and scholar Alcuin of York, who was his minister of education at the time.

Following Charlemagne's orders, Alcuin set up a school that all monks attended. By the ninth century, a consistent writing style had been established for all scribes in the Holy Roman Empire. "Let them distinguish the proper sense by colons and commas," wrote Alcuin, "and let them see the points each one in its due place, and let not him who reads the words to them either read falsley or pause suddenly."

One significant result was the Caroline minuscules – the forerunners of our own lowercase letters. It was clear and very legible, and moved away from the cursive styles that had crept into Europe. In addition, Alcuin instituted uniform spelling, the use of capitals to begin sentences, the use of spaces between words, the arranging of text into sentences and paragraphs, and worked to standardize marks and the use of punctuation - all of which are writing standards still our conventions today.

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the Renaissance typographer and printer, later helped establish Alcuin’s reforms through consistent usage. Manutius used a period (.) to indicate a full stop at the end of a sentence and a diagonal slash (/) to represent a pause.

The basic form of the question mark (?) was developed much later, in sixteenth-century England. Most typographic historians contend that the design for the question mark was derived from an abbreviation of the Latin word quaestio, which simply means 'what'. At first this symbol consisted of a capital 'Q' atop a lowercase 'o'. Over time this early symbol simplified to the mark we use today.

Shakespeare's Use Of Punctuation

William Shakespeare busy at work The English playwright William Shakespeare used enjambment to continue a syntactic (meaning) unit from one line or couplet of a poem to the next with no pause. Enjambment is used when a linguistic unit (phrase or sentence) in poetry runs over the line break. This technique allowed his actors' dialogues to more closely approximate the rhythms of actual speech:

    "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day."

Meaning flows from line to line, and the reader's eye is pulled forward. Enjambment moves the poem forward, it accelerates. When reading dramatic verse, it is very important to read an enjambed line without pausing. Enjambment is the opposite of end stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with the line length.

For pauses, Shakespeare used a technique known as phrasing, a process by which cæsuras (||, //) are used to break the metric line into individual thoughts. Cæsura is a technical term given to an audible pause that breaks up a long line of verse. A masculine cæsura is one that occurs after a stressed syllable; a feminine cæsura follows an unstressed syllable.

It is important when interpreting Shakespeare’s lines dramatically, to honor his punctuation:

  • period (.) = hard stop
  • comma (,) = pause
  • semicolon (;) = strong pause and/or pause within a list
  • colon (:) = strong pause; what follows has importance.

Ben Jonson (c. 1572-1637) Ironically, our current understanding of punctuation comes from a contemporary of Shakespeare, and indeed, his closest literary competitor at the time: playright Ben Jonson, whose posthumously published "English Grammar" codified the concept of syntactical punctuation. Defending his heavy use of punctuation, Jonson writes: "For, whereas our breath is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake long together; it was thought necessarie, as well as for the speakers ease, as for the plainer deliverance of the things spoken, to invent this meanes, whereby men pausing a pretty while, the whole speech might never the worse be understood."

Standardized Punctuation

But, it was the invention of the printing press that was the catalyst for the development of punctuation signs. Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) is credited with the invention of the printing press in 1436 or 1437. Over the next two hundred years printers experimented with many signs and symbols; but, it wasn't until the late 1600's and into the 1700's that standardized punctuation emerged with its requisite signs and rules.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, quotation marks, the apostrophe, the dash, and the exclamation point were added to the basic set of punctuation marks in consistent use. The initial configuration of the exclamation point, which is descended from a logotype for the Latin word io, meaning 'joy', was a capital 'I' set over a lowercase 'o'. As with the question mark, the design of the exclamation point was gradually streamlined to its present form.

The system of punctuation now used by writers of English has been complete since the seventeenth century. The three most important components are the space left blank between words; the indentation of the first line of a new paragraph; and the uppercase, or capital, letter written at the beginning of a sentence and at the beginning of a proper name or a title.

Excessive punctuation was common in the eighteenth century: at its worst it used commas with every subordinate clause and separable phrase. In 1906, lexicographers Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler published "The King's English", establishing the current British practice of light punctuation. Punctuation in the United States has followed much the same path as in Britain, but the rules have in general been more rigid than the British rules.

Some typographical symbols, or glyphs, such as ampersand (&), asterisk (*), bullet (•), commercial at (@), dagger or obelisk (†), double dagger or Cross of Lorraine (‡), number sign or pound sign (#), and tilde (~), are often mistaken for punctuation marks. Also related are diacritical marks (or diacritics), which serve to distinguish among similar sounds using the same primary letter symbol, or to clarify emphasis or tone. Each script, and each language within a script, can have its own set of punctuation marks and usage conventions.

The English language is constantly evolving. During the twentieth century alone we observed this evolution in many ways: spelling changes, new words, technology terms, scientific terms, and colloquialisms. Punctuation is also evolving. In 1962, the interrobang (), was introduced by the New York publishing establishment as "a twentieth century punctuation mark". The interrobang combined the functions of a question mark and an exclamation point. It received some attention at first, but never caught on, although for a brief period during the 1960s it was added to some typewriter keyboards.

"Punctuation marks are language traffic signs. They tell you when to start and stop or how to read the lines."
-David Mielke

Spanish Punctuation

Flag of Spain Spanish punctuation is so much like that of English that some textbooks and reference books don't even discuss it. But, there are a few significant differences:

  • Signo de interrogación, or inverted question mark (¿), has its origins in the mid-1700s. At the time, it was felt that a single mark at the end of a sentence was insufficient to allow Spanish readers to regularly achieve the right intonation pattern, and after officially recognizing the problem, the Real Academia Española in 1754 advocated the use of '¿' at the beginning of interrogative clauses in conjunction with '?' at the end. Even then it took a couple of decades before it came into regular and consistent use.

  • Signos de exclamación, or exclamation marks (¡ !), are used in the same way that question marks are. If a sentence contains a question and an exclamation, it is acceptable to use one of the marks at the beginning of the sentence and the other at the end.

  • Comillas, or angled quotation marks (« »), and the English-style quotation marks ("") are the equivalent. The choice is primarily a matter of regional custom or the capabilities of the typesetting system. The main difference between the English and Spanish uses of quotation marks is that sentence punctuation in Spanish goes outside the quote marks, while in English the punctuation is on the inside.

  • The comma (,) is usually used the same as in English: to indicate a break in thought or to set off clauses or words. One difference is that in lists, there is no comma between the last item and 'y', whereas in English some writers use a comma before 'and'.

  • The raya, or dash (-), is used most frequently in Spanish to indicate a change in speakers during a dialogue. In English, it is customary to separate each speakers remarks into a separate paragraph.

  • In regular text, the punto o punto final, or period (.), is used essentially the same as in English. However, in numerals a comma is often used instead of a period and vice versa. In U.S. and Mexican Spanish, however, the same pattern as English is often followed.

  • The ñ derives from the letter n. The ñ does not exist in Latin and is the only letter of Spanish origins. Beginning in about the twelfth century, Spanish scribes used the tilde placed over letters to indicate that a letter was doubled. For example, 'nn' became 'ñ' and 'aa' became 'ã'. The popularity of the tilde for other letters eventually waned and by the fourteenth century, 'ñ' was the only place where it was used. While not part of the English alphabet, 'ñ' is frequently is used by writers when using borrowed words such as jalapeño, piña colada or piñata and in the spelling of personal and place names.

French Punctuation

Flag of France There are four French accents for vowels and one accent for a consonant. It is essential to put accents in their proper places, because an incorrect or missing accent constitutes a spelling mistake just as an incorrect or missing letter would be. The only exception to this is capital letters, which are often left unaccented.

  • The accent aigu, or acute accent (´), can only be on an E. At the beginning of a word, it often indicates that an 's' used to follow that vowel, e.g., étudiant.

  • The accent grave, or grave accent (`), can be found on an A, E, or U. On the A and U, it usually serves to distinguish between homonyms, e.g., ou (or) vs (where).

  • The accent circonflexe (^) can be on an A, E, I, O, or U. The circonflexe usually indicates that an 's' used to follow that vowel, e.g., forêt. It also serves to distinguish between homonyms; e.g., du (contraction of de + le) vs (past participle of devoir).

  • The accent tréma, or dieresis or umlaut (¨), can be on an E, I, or U. It is used when two vowels are next to each other and both must be pronounced, e.g., naïve, Saül.

  • The cédille, or cedilla (¸), is found only on the letter C. It changes a hard c sound (like k) into a soft c sound (like s), e.g., garçon. The cedille is never placed in front of E or I, because C always sounds like an S in front of these vowels.

  • The trait d'union, or hyphen (-), with no space before or after, is used to indicate a link between words or parts of words, e.g., grand-mère, aide-moi, fais-le, c'est-à-dire and non-fumeur. As in English, it can also be used to link the parts of a word that breaks at the end of a line.

  • The tiret, or dash (—), with a space before and after, is used in lists of names or words, to emphasize a comment, e.g., "Paul — mon meilleur ami — va arriver demain", and to indicate each change of speaker in a written dialogue.

  • Guillemets, or angled quotation marks (« »), as in Spanish, are used to identify quotations.

"Punctuation is analogous to good manners: it makes the way easy for others without seeking attention."
-Lynne Truss

East-Asian Punctuation

Chinese and Japanese use a different set of punctuation marks:

  • Some punctuation marks are similar to their equivalent Western ones, but larger, to suit the characters that surround the mark, for example, the Chinese comma (,) is larger than its Western counterpart.

  • Chinese and Japanese period is a small circle (。).

  • When the text is written vertically, the quotation marks 『』 and 「」 are used; but when the text is written horizontally both the above quotation marks and the English quotation marks, “” and ‘’, can be used.

  • Also in Chinese, there are book title marks, 《book title》, (what in English would be italicization or underlining); and chapter marks, 〈chapter title〉, (what in English would be quotation marks).

  • The caesura sign (頓號 or 顿号 in pinyin: dun4 hao4), nicknamed sesame dot, is the Chinese equivalent of serial comma. It is shaped like a teardrop with the narrow sharp end pointing top-left and round end pointing bottom-right: 、 (it may be depicted on your computer in another font). In Japanese, the Chinese caesura sign is used as comma (serial or not).

  • The partition sign is a dot at the centre of a character space: ‧. Look up middle dot in Wikipedia.

  • The proper noun mark, which exists as underline beneath the noun, is occasionally used in Chinese (in teaching materials and some subtitles). When the text runs vertically, the proper name mark is written as a line to the left of the characters.

Korean currently uses Western punctuation and, like Classical Chinese, the traditional Mongolian language employed no punctuation at all. But now as it uses the Cyrillic alphabet, its punctuations are similar, if not identical, to Russian.

The Future Of Punctuation

The purpose of punctuation is to facilitate reading and writing by indicating the necessary pauses. The aim of punctuation is to clarify meaning and prevent misunderstanding. The hard and fast rules of the past are becoming more flexible. Not all text books agree on the uses of every punctuation mark. The best way authors can check their punctuation is to read their writing aloud. Wherever one pauses, one needs a punctuation mark.

Globalization With today's globalization, pop culture, technology, and the Internet making major changes to our language, no one has been able to realistically predict the future evolution of punctuation. But, if we really appreciate our language and care enough to preserve what may be the "most profound invention in human history" - our writing - we must also preserve our passion for the necessity of punctuation.

In her controversial book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation", journalist Lynne Truss gives her readers 'permission' to love punctuation. She writes in the introduction: "You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation." She later suggests: "We should fight like tigers to preserve our punctuation... Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable."

Indeed, punctuation is something you almost certainly do not think about on a day-to-day basis, but whose presence you would also almost certainly miss if it were to disappear tomorrow. Without punctuation, everything would become substantially more difficult to read. It's amazing that civilization managed to get through a couple of thousand years without it.



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