As readers and writers, we are intimately familiar with the dots, strokes and dashes that punctuate the written word. The comma, colon, semicolon and their siblings are integral parts of writing, pointing out grammatical structures and helping us turn letters into spoken words or mental images. The rules of punctuation vary with language, location, register and time and are constantly evolving. In written English, for example, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. But how did it all begin?
It is known that Ancient Greeks wrote their texts withnospacesorpunctuation and without any distinction between lowercase and capitals. In the 3rd Century BCE, in the Hellenic Egyptian city of Alexandria, a librarian named Aristophanes, chief of staff at the city’s famous library, found the need to use signs to help understand a text easier. Aristophanes’ breakthrough was to suggest that readers could annotate their documents, relieving the unbroken stream of text with dots of ink aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (˙) of each line. His ‘subordinate’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘full’ points corresponded to the pauses of increasing length that a practised reader would habitually insert between formal units of speech, called the comma, colon and period.
With Aristophanes’ little dots now commonplace, writers began to expand on them. Some borrowed from musical notation, inspired by Gregorian chants to create new marks like the punctus versus (a medieval ringer for the semicolon used to terminate a sentence) and the punctus elevatus (an upside-down ‘;’ that evolved into the modern colon) that suggested changes in tone as well as grammatical meaning. Another new mark, an ancestor of the question mark called punctus interrogativus, was used to punctuate questions and to convey a rising inflection at the same time. In the late 11th/early 12th century, punctus versus disappeared and was taken over by the simple punctus.
Punctuation developed dramatically when large numbers of copies of the Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud, so the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks and an early version of initial. In the 7th-8th centuries, Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes, whose native languages were not derived from Latin, added more visual cues to render texts more intelligible.
In the 15th century, William Caxton, the first printer of books in English, used three punctuation marks: the stroke (/) for marking word groups, the colon (:) for marking distinct syntactic pauses, and the period (.) for marking the ends of sentences and brief pauses. For example,
The thyrde temptation that the deuyl maketh to theym that deye. is by Impacyence: that is ayenste charyte/ For by charyte ben holden to loue god abouve alle thynges.(modern form: The third temptation that the Devil makes to them that die is by Impatience; that is against charity. For by charity be held to love God above all things.)
Early seventeenth century writers appeared to use colons, semicolons, and commas interchangeably. Their use depended upon pauses for breath rather than the syntactic structure of the sentence. In contrast, writers of the late seventeenth century tried to establish precise rules for the use of the comma, semicolon and colon, on the principles that a semicolon indicated a pause twice as long as that for a comma, and a colon indicated a pause twice as long as for a semicolon.
Nowadays, other European languages use much the same punctuation as English. The similarity is so strong that the few variations may confuse a native English reader. Quotation marks are particularly variable across European languages. For example, in French and Russian, quotes would appear as: « Je suis fatigué. » (in French, each “double punctuation”, as the guillemet, requires a non-breaking space; in Russian it does not).
In Greek, the question mark is written as the English semicolon, while the functions of the colon and semicolon are performed by a raised point (·), known as ano teleia (άνω τελεία).
Spanish uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of a question and the normal question mark at the end, as well as an inverted exclamation mark at the beginning of an exclamation and the normal exclamation mark at the end.
In Georgian, three dots, ⟨჻⟩, were formerly used as a sentence or paragraph divider. It is still sometimes used in calligraphy.
Armenian uses several punctuation marks of its own. The full stop is represented by a colon, and vice versa; the exclamation mark is represented by a diagonal similar to a tilde (~), while the question mark resembles the “at” symbol.
Beyond the Western world and rules, the first writing systems were either logographic or syllabic – for example, Chinese and Maya script, which do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single glyph, so spacing does not help as much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts. Disambiguation and emphasis can easily be communicated without punctuation by employing a separate written form distinct from the spoken form of the language that uses slightly different phraseology. Ancient Chinese classical texts were transmitted without punctuation. However, many texts contain the symbols (└ ) and ( ▄ ) indicating the end of a chapter and full stop, respectively. Most texts were still written in scriptura continua that is without any separation between words. In fact, punctuation was not used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing until the adoption of punctuation from the West in the late 19th and early 20th century. In unpunctuated texts, the grammatical structure of sentences in classical writing is inferred from context. Most punctuation marks in modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have similar functions to their English counterparts; however, they often look different and have different customary rules.
Punctuation is constantly evolving, because language should shift and change with the needs of the times. The purpose of punctuation is to facilitate reading and writing by indicating the necessary pauses, thus clarifying meaning and preventing misunderstanding. The best way to check your punctuation is to read writing aloud. Wherever you pause, you need a punctuation mark.