Issue 9 |

A history of punctuation in English

by on December 28, 2016

Have you ever stopped and wondered why we mark our texts with symbols such as commas, question marks, and the like? Of course, we all seem to recognise and understand punctuation with ease. Unlike a word we’ve never seen, your listeners would be none the wiser if you came across a new and unrecognisable piece of punctuation while reading aloud. But, why is it that we have both a colon and a semicolon? Whether or not you know of their purpose, you’re able to determine and adjust your speech and reading comprehension when you see one. You can also recognise when some punctuation just isn’’t right. Perhaps your appreciation for punctuation is all but non-existent or maybe you secretly love the Oxford comma. Regardless, punctuation in English has a rich and surprising history from the full stop to the semicolon and even quotation marks.

General history

Keith Houston of the BBC has a rather intricate and detailed timeline for this history of punctuation (which this article will follow). As he notes, the earliest prominent use of any punctuation was in the 3rd century BC. Aristophanes had offered a solution to the completely run-on writing style of the Greeks, which featured spaces between letters, words, clauses, or sentences. Aristophanes proposed that writers use three types of dots to allocate the appropriate pause between formal parts of speech. A dot located in the bottom denoted a short pause like a comma, the middle was for an intermediate pause like a colon, and the bottom was for a pause much like a full stop. With this, a reader would know when to pause and for how long to produce cohesive and understandable speech.

Alas, the Aristophanean method was eventually scrapped when the Roman empire gained precedence over the Greeks from their politics to their writing. The Romans, namely Cicero, believed the speaker should exert discretion over his or her rhythm of speech and not be bound by dots or punctuation.

In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville resurrected the dots originally proposed by Aristophanes. His most famous work, ‘The Etymologies’  (or Etymologiae in Latin), covered a diverse range of topics including geometry, music, cities, animals, and, of course, grammar. It was in this writing that he presented an updated version of the Aristophanean system. He went beyond the simple method of dots denoting pauses and attached more significant meaning to each dot: the highest dot marked the end of a sentence while the lowest dot functioned much like a comma does today. The work of Isidore of Seville was widely respected and he was even cited by Dante Alighieri and quoted by Geoffrey Chaucer. Etymologiae was treated as a textbook through the Middle Ages and no doubt had a profound effect on how writers used grammar and punctuation.

Just like learners of new languages, users of punctuation have since elaborated on the dot system Aristophanes first invented in order to produce even more useful and distinguishing meanings today. According to Keith Houston, music was a major influence for punctuation because musical notation used symbols like the breve and caesura to indicate notes and rests—a necessary component of written language to determine pauses.

One example, which comes from Gregorian chants, is the punctus elevatas which serves as our modern-day colon. With each symbol offering more precise meaning than the last, the originally proposed by Aristophanes eventually faded into history as their usage diminshed. However, the use of a single dot held its ground and retained a meaning of pause (albeit for an unspecified amount of time). (Interestingly, modern spoken transcriptions in linguistics are often annotated with a period to indicate pauses shorter than a second.) As Isidore of Seville released his nuances, an Italian by the name of Boncampagno da Sigla proposed a similar punctuation system but chose the slash (/) to indicate a pause.

Evolution of symbols / punctuation?

The question mark (?) made its way into standard usage in the 15th century and was known has the punctus interrogatives (‘point of interrogation’ in Latin). There are some theories on how the shape of the question mark came about; Oxford Dictionaries offers the theory that it began as a dot with a rising tilde (. ~) to denote the upward inflection. Just like many of our letters and words, this theory states that the symbol transformed into the shape it is today due to the vast amount of users approximating its shape in writing. Another theory from Oxford Dictionaries states that the lowercase “q” and “o” from the Latin qvaestio (‘question’) were combined and eventually transformed into the swirl and dot that we know of today.

Both the colon (:) and semicolon (;) were featured in Gregorian chants with the former as the punctus elevatas (‘elevated point’ in Latin) and the latter as the punctus versus (Latin for a “long pause”). The first usage of the colon dates back to the 1600s to denote a pause time greater than a comma but less than a full stop. The semicolon has a much earlier history with its first written use in 1494. As noted by Lynn Truss in her 2004 book ‘Eats, Shoots, and Leaves’, a printer by the name of Aldus Manutius the Elder used the semicolon to separate words. Its purpose was to allow the writer to produce new ideas and topics between phrases without producing a new sentence. Originally, the colon was simply an upside down semicolon but the single open inverted comma-like top eroded down to a single point.


Punctus elevatus (Source: Harvard University)

One theory for the exclamation mark (!) posits that the symbol comes from the Latin word for an exclamation of joy, io. The letter “i” was eventually moved above the “o,” the dot and line of “i” connected, and the “o” shrunk to the size of a period today. It was first used in English in the 15th century but, interestingly, only had its own dedicated key on a typewriter from the 1970s.

The apostrophe (’), widely used starting in the 16th century, came into use in English for purposes of elision (or contractions such as I’m for I am) and to fill in where a grapheme or letter no longer reflected the actual pronunciation (e.g. loved became lov’d). The apostrophe was first used this way by Geoffrey Tory in French in 1529. It was used at the junction of two vowel sounds (e.g. la heure became l’heure). Taking this feature from the French language, English speakers used this feature so they could contract words and leave out unpronounced letters without losing any meaning. It could be surmised that the printing press, an industry that charged per letter, encouraged writers to use the apostrophe to save money. A standardised way of using the apostrophe wasn’t finalised until the mid-1800s, and which is still in use today.

The slash (/) introduced by Boncampagno di Sigla was minimised over the years and eventually settled low on the text line as our modern day comma (,). Brackets; including parentheses, square brackets, pointy brackets, corner brackets, and angle brackets; made their first entry into English in the 14th century in the form of chevrons (< >).

And, finally, the single dot originally proposed by Aristophanes has become the full stop (.), or period. It also holds the title of the most common punctuation mark in English as it is used to denote the end of a sentence.

The invention of the printing press in the 1440s helped to solidify and determine the importance of punctuation through the large-scale production of texts read by many people. With a handful of symbols in use, printing offered a standardised system that was all but set in stone. So much so that the average Joe from the late 1400s could probably understand the punctuation symbols on our QWERTY keyboard with relative ease (save for connecting it to your computer via Bluetooth).

Modern usage?

It took a long time for punctuation in English to take on any changes because new punctuation needs had yet to be discovered or required and mass printing allowed us to be socialised into the written norms of English. However, with new speech patterns and cultural changes (like the computer-age), the invention of new punctuation is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Most notably, the interrobang (‽ or ?! or !?) has been a popular addition to English. Combining the meaning of both a question mark and an exclamation mark, the interrobang can be used to ask a rhetorical question or to simply ask a question with excitement. Interestingly, the concept came about in 1962 and was conceptualised by Martin K. Speckter, the head of an advertising agency. For him, the interrobang would allow copywriters to rhetorical meaning to their copy for the reader. Despite being featured on some models of Remington typewriters; it exists today in just a handful of fonts available in Microsoft Office.

More recently, online writers have used a variety of symbols typically associated with computer coding to convey meaning. For example, if a writer wants to add emphasis but is unable to change the style (such as bold, underline, or italics), they may choose to use tildes around a word in order to create emphasis. When used in a computer programme, the use of symbols can change the style of text once the text is sent (for example, surrounding a word in underscores italicises text in the popular messaging app, WhatsApp).


The tilde as a modern form of emphasis (Source: Buzzfeed)

There also seems to be a trend in using tildes for nuanced emphasis as this Buzzfeed article points out. Although this isn’t standardised punctuation, these symbols seem to have the same humble beginnings as the Aristophanean dots: both were introduced to help us better understand communication.

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