A Brief History About English Punctuation Marks

Image of facsimile of a book printed in 1489. Notice the English grammar punctuation marks in the picture, (e.g., virgules (/), double hyphens (=), and pilcrows or paragraph marks (¶)). Credit: The Statues of Henry VIII 1889.

Knowing where and when to use the fourteen punctuation marks found in English grammar can greatly improve your writing skills. What are the fourteen punctuation marks in English grammar? They are the period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks, and ellipses.  To be candid with you, I still have no idea how to use brackets, braces or ellipses.  I probably studied them during our English glasses, and since then they vanished from my mind.  Will explore more on their use as a result of the research I made to write this blog post.

Of these fourteen punctuation marks, the comma is one of the oldest marks of punctuation. It was created over 2,300 years ago by a Greek scholar named Aristophanes, head of the Library of Alexandria, in a punctuational discovery that also gave us the colon and the period.

“Ancient scrolls were written without punctuation of any kind (even word spaces were centuries away), and readers habitually mumbled along with the text as they read, forming syllables into words and picking out the rhythm of the text. This was all too much for Aristophanes, who created a series of marks for readers to annotate their unbroken texts. Each mark took the form of a simple punctus, or “point,” a dot placed on a line of text to signify a short, medium, or long pause. The shortest pause, called the comma, was represented by a dot at the middle of the line (•); the longer colon and periods were at the bottom (.) and top (˙) respectively. The idea was that the reader, not the writer, would punctuate their scroll with these little dots to help them read it aloud.

Over the centuries Aristophanes’ dots moved up and down the line: the period dropped to the bottom (.) and has stayed there ever since, while the colon gained an accomplice (:). The modern comma, however, despite its visual kinship with Aristophanes’ original, is not the same mark at all. In the twelfth century, as the Renaissance gathered steam, an Italian writer named Buoncompagno da Signa took a crack at inventing his own system of punctuation. He proposed only two marks: the suspensivus, or slash (/), represented a pause and the planus, or dash (–), marked the end of a sentence. By the fifteenth century Buoncompagno’s slash was being used interchangeably with Aristophanes’ ancient comma: gradually, the newer mark dropped to the bottom of the line and acquired a slight curve, and when it took on the name of the older mark the comma we recognize today was born.”

The comma, semicolon and colon are often misused because they all can indicate a pause in a series. The comma is used to show a separation of ideas or elements within the structure of a sentence.  Additionally, it is used in letter writing after the salutation and closing.

  • Separating elements within sentences: Suzi wanted the black, green, and blue shoes.
  • Letter Salutations: Dear Uncle John,
  • Separation of two complete sentences: We went to the movies , and we went to the beach.

The semicolon (;) is used to connect independent clauses. It shows a closer relationship between the clauses than a period would show. For example: John was hurt; he knew she only said it to upset him.

A colon (:) has two main uses:

  • The first is after a word introducing a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series. It is also often used after the salutation of a business letter.
  • The second is within time expressions. Within time, it is used to separate out the hour and minute: 12:15 p.m.

Brackets, braces and parentheses are symbols used to contain words that are a further explanation or are considered a group.

  • Brackets are the squared off notations ([]) used for technical explanations. YourDictionary uses them when you look up word definitions. At the bottom of each definition page, brackets surround a technical description of where the word originated.
  • Braces ({}) are used to contain two or more lines of text or listed items to show that they are considered as a unit. They are not commonplace in most writing, but can be seen in computer programming to show what should be contained within the same lines.
  • Parenthesis ( () ) are curved notations used to contain further thoughts or qualifying remarks. However, parentheses can be replaced by commas without changing the meaning in most cases. For example:  John and Jane ( who were actually half-brother and sister ) both have red hair.

The ellipses mark is generally represented by three periods (. . .) although it is occasionally demonstrated with three asterisks (***). The ellipses are used in writing or printing to show an omission, especially of letters or words. Ellipses are often used within quotations to jump from one phrase to another, omitting unnecessary words that do not interfere with the meaning. Students writing research papers or newspapers quoting parts of speeches will often use ellipses to avoid copying lengthy text that is not needed.

The Library of Alexandria was the source of much of the punctuation we still use today. In the second century BC, Aristarchus, one of Aristophanes’ successors, took it upon himself to create a series of marks to help editors correct the error-strewn scrolls that crossed their desks. The simplest was the arrowhead shape of the diple (>), or “double,” a symbol used to highlight interesting lines of text in the same way that a modern writer might underline a notable passage.

“And then, just like that, the diple was gone. Johann Gutenberg and his successors made their movable type by sculpting steel punches into the shapes of tiny letters, numbers, and marks of punctuation before driving these punches into copper and finally casting them in lead. It was a time-consuming business, and printers were eager to keep the numbers of characters they had to carve, strike, and cast down to a minimum. The diple was one of the first casualties of this efficiency drive, left out of printed books right from the start. From the sixteenth century on, printers began to use a pair of commas (,,) instead of diples–no-one has ever quite worked out why–and later rotated them (“) to produce matching pairs of opening and closing marks. Overnight, the diple was dethroned by the quotation mark.”

I could go on forever, but it’s highly likely many readers will be bored or probably snoring by now.  However, if you are enamoured with the English language and a passionate history fan, I have included a link to an article written by Keith Houston dubbed, “5 Punctuation Marks That Look Nothing Like They Used To”, which I’m sure you will hold dear.

I’ve had my quarrels with the English language now and then, and it’s most likely there will be more in the future; but I can’t help going back and to study the language further.  It’s like a love-hate relationship, but absolutely a fun experience.  Good Day.

Source:  Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (W. W. Norton & Company) now out in paperback.

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