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Language and linguistics

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A history of punctuation

How we came to represent (through inky marks) the vagaries of the mind, inflections of the voice, and intensity of feeling

Florence Hazrat

Photo by Corbis/Getty

Florence Hazrat

is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, working on parentheses in Renaissance romance. Her first book ‘Refrains in Early Modern Literature’ is forthcoming, and she is currently writing a book called ‘Standing on Points: The History and Culture of Punctuation’.

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Punctuation is dead – or is it? If you’ve ever texted ‘im here’ or ‘its in the car’, you’re in good company. Most of us have, at some point since the dawn of texting, transgressed the boundaries of good grammar, and swallowed one apostrophe or another in the name of speed or convenience. Studies have shown that such textisms as deliberate spelling mistakes, abbreviations and omission of apostrophes don’t deteriorate language skills, but boost them – provided such texting goes hand in hand with ‘proper’ grammar education.

Suppressing the little typographical hook that is the apostrophe might, however, pose graver issues when it occurs in public, such as in ads or pub signs, or even street names. Is it different if the state flouts language rules? Enter the international Apostrophe Protection Society, with its attempts to call out misuse and spread good practice. But November 2019 saw the announcement of the society’s demise, and owing not only to the highly respectable age of its founder John Richards (96): it would close, the society said, because of the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times’. The announcement made global news, sky-rocketing the traffic on the charmingly old-school website some 600 times, which led to its temporary disappearance from the web, and an outcry against the society’s closure. Punctuation habits might be changing, but we still care.

Are prescribed grammar rules necessary, though, or a relic of some fussy conservatism and elitist era? Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? Is Princes Street rather than Prince’s or even the formidable Princes’ Street really a sign of our careless inattention to detail today? If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place? Punctuation, like any other cultural production, has a tumultuous history full of public good and personal interest.

In the broad sense, punctuation is any glyph or sign in a text that isn’t an alphabet letter. This includes spaces, whose inclusion wasn’t always a given: in classical times stone inscriptions as well as handwritten texts WOULDLOOKLIKETHIS – written on scrolls, potentially unrolling forever. Reasons for continuous script aren’t entirely clear, but might be connected to a conception of writing as record of speech rather than a practice in itself, and since we’re hardly aware of the minuscule pauses we make between words when speaking, it isn’t obvious to register something we do and perceive unconsciously with a designated sign that is a non-sign: blank space.

One of the primary purposes of writing in Ancient Greece and Rome was giving lectures and political speeches, not publishing texts. Before going on stage, an orator would work on his text, making subjective, individually determined signs for long and short syllables, pauses for rhetorical effect and breathing, and joining up of words when reading aloud. There was no such thing as reading at first sight.

Writing without punctuation lasted for many hundreds of years, in spite of individual efforts such as those of Aristophanes, the librarian at Alexandria. Around 200 BCE, Aristophanes of Alexandria wished to ease pronunciation of Greek for foreigners by suggesting small circles at different levels of the line for pauses of different lengths, emphasising the rhythm of the sentence though not yet its grammatical shape. That would remain a task for the 7th-century churchman and encyclopaedist Isidore of Seville.

Isidore invented the period, comma and colon. He rethought Aristophanes’ punctuation, based on pauses when reading aloud, in terms of grammatical parts of the sentence: an utterance whose sense and grammar were complete would receive a dot at the top of the line, which would eventually migrate down to the bottom and become the full stop or period we know today. An utterance whose sense and grammar were complete but accommodated expansion would get a dot in the centre: the future colon. Lastly, an utterance that was neither complete in sense nor in grammar would be marked off with a dot at the bottom, evolving into the comma. Where previously only the full sentence received a boundary sign, it was now also possible to distinguish the constituents within. Isidore’s ideas circulated widely and, by the end of the same century, Irish monks had added spaces between words to his system of dots. These changes attest to a shift in the perception of writing from record of speech to record of information. Meaning no longer needed to pass from eye to mind via voice and ear, but was directly – silently – apprehended.

Cantillation marks offer aids to oral performance from pauses to prescribed musical melodies

The main motivation was pedagogical: with the decline of the Roman empire came a creeping deterioration of knowledge of Latin, so any aid in understanding helped stem the tide, particularly as Latin is based on declensions so its word endings, which vary according to case, could easily be confused. The spread of Christianity and its reliance on the book catalysed the urgency to increase legibility of writing in order to fix meaning: if the Bible was the unadulterated word of God, then it was crucial to ensure an unchanging chain of transmission.

Although Christianity developed its own chanting system, whose marks contributed to the diffusion of punctuation in the Middle Ages, voicing the words of the Bible out loud once translated and fixed in Latin doesn’t make or break their sense. Unlike Judaism and Islam which have a strong oral tradition, Christianity, from its inception, was a largely scriptural religion. One of the oldest manuscripts of the Torah dates from the 9th century and shows evidence of vowel additions, as well as cantillation marks offering aids to oral performance from pauses to prescribed musical melodies with which the phrase ought to be sung. Such cantillation marks also exist in the Quran, whose essence is intimately intertwined with performance as the angel Jibril revealed the text to the prophet through the process of recitation. The Quranic marks called alāmāt al-waqf come as individual letters written above the line, and specify several kinds of stopping, ranging from absolutely mandatory pauses or letter liaisons to ‘it is better to stop’, ‘you may stop’, and ‘you must stop’. These breaks or sonic links don’t serve as places of breathing first and foremost, but sense-making, and beauty.

Today, Arabic and Hebrew texts contain the same punctuation marks as those of Western languages, although writers rarely use the full range. Modern Arabic saw the introduction of Western marks around the end of the 19th century, a development tied to colonialism. In an 1893 article in the Egyptian al-Fatā journal, the Lebanese writer Zaynab Fawwāz suggested taking over Western marks of punctuation based on a French model. Fawwāz aimed to democratise written Arabic, making it accessible without the prerequisite of extensive grammatical knowledge, a skill reserved for a small educated elite. By adding punctuation marks (the traffic lights of text, telling the reader when and how meaning starts and stops), she hoped to promote literacy in Arabic, stemming the progress of French as textual language in the Maghreb. In 1900, Aḥmad Zakī wrote the first Arabic novel with Western punctuation marks, facilitated by a glossary and foreword, praising their usefulness in the preservation of Arabic.

The development of punctuation is messy and diffuse: individual writers’ habits, different shapes of marks that keep mutating from manuscript to manuscript, or simply pragmatic reasons of space all complicate a simple narrative. Rather than a neat evolutionary line, imagine punctuation developing as a rhizome, a horizontal mesh of practices, explorations and loosely understood conventions whose overlapping branches sometimes do the same thing but look different. Sometimes they disappear and return at later points elsewhere, or burst to the surface from obscurity and come to dominate the organism for various reasons.

By the late Middle Ages, the comma, the colon and the full stop had established themselves. The exclamation and the question mark joined their ranks, attesting to a need for emotional emphasis and clarification of intonation. What is perfectly clear in speech can become doubtful in its written form, in spite of question words and interrogative grammatical constructions.

The hope or necessity to clarify the meaning of words that came disembodied of vocal inflections or body language drove the advent of punctuation. A rare instance of known invention is the birth of brackets in De nobilitate legum et medicine (1399), a work on the competition for nobility between medicine and law: the Italian scholar Coluccio Salutati added half-angular, half-pointy brackets to the text written by his amanuensis, showing the care he took over the minutiae of written expression.

The parenthesis is the rhetorical figure of digression. It existed before the invention of the visual sign to mark it off from the main story. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian latinises a digression as interpositio in his book on rhetorical training, which, just as the Greek counterpart parenthesis does, draws attention to the physical image of something spatially standing between or beside something else. A syntactic mini-digression is thus ancient but it took some 1,500 years to crystallise those relationships between main clauses and adjunct through the semi-permeable walls of brackets. As writing needed to do more work in trade and political communication, more and more signs of punctuation were invented to facilitate faster and more accurate reading.

Over the course of the 15th century, brackets became round, but writers rarely used them, and they would, perhaps, have dipped into oblivion had it not been for the invention of the printing press, around 1450. They found fast favour with some German printers. The printing press proved a great boon to punctuation. This new technology permitted not only swift printing of a high number of copies at relatively low prices, but also identical reproduction of signs. Although considerable confusion over punctuation persisted and the rise of the current system of signs took some time, standardisation meant legibility, and it paved the way for widespread use of brackets and other punctuation.

The Comma Strike spread popular boycott throughout Russia

Printers in Germany, France and Italy were not craftsmen only but often educated scholars instrumental in introducing and spreading the use and looks of punctuation marks. The superstar of European printer-intellectuals, the Venetian Aldus Manutius, invented the semicolon for the Italian poet Pietro Bembo’s dialogue De Aetna (1494), allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing. Just quite when and how to use the mark puzzles us to this day, giving rise to angry dismissals and offensive expletives. The 20th-century writer Kurt Vonnegut called them ‘transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing’. The lack of boundary and definitiveness makes readers anxious. The American author Edward Abbey called them a ‘storm of flyshit on the typescript’. But, when readers were asked about their favourite punctuation mark in a 2012 survey in the Swedish journal Språktidningen, the semicolon won with a 10 per cent lead on all other signs.

The first use of the unloved semicolon from the 1494 Aldus Manutius printing of Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna. Courtesy Wikipedia

In the hands of a master rhetorician, the semicolon holds out a kind of hanging between delay and arrival, a promise of finality yet reticence. In his prison letters, Martin Luther King Jr describes the situation of Black people in a state of suspense through a series of sentences separated by semicolons. Only those who haven’t experienced oppression, injustice and violence could push equality into an indefinite future rather than instituting it now. King enumerates different kinds of horrific experiences ranging from lynchings to demeaning names and the psychological trauma of segregation through sentence after sentence separated by semicolons, conjuring a textual experience of both withholding and excess. After a semicolon-rich sentence filling an entire page, King’s voice crashes on the beach of the full stop with damning gravity: ‘when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.’

Writers from the end of the 17th century onwards had various marks at their disposal, including question and exclamation marks, brackets and semicolons for pausing and adding, dashes for interruptions and unfinished business, and dot dot dots to signal hesitation or uncertainty, not to speak of hyphens, commas, asterisks, ampersands, footnotes, the humble full stop and space, and countless other marks of punctuation and typographical signs. None of these enjoyed hard-and-fast rules, and all of them were still in the making. Writing had come to touch all areas of private and public life, and with that came a desire to represent through inky marks the vagaries of the mind, the inflections of the voice, and the intensity of feeling.

The semicolon wasn’t the only punctuation mark making history: in 1905, Moscow printers demanded to be paid for setting not only letters but also punctuation marks, which required the same action and the same amount of time as the alphabet. What is known as the ‘Comma Strike’ spread popular boycott throughout the country, leading to the czar ceding Russia its first constitution. A comma can, more or less, get the blood boiling.

Frustrated by the misunderstandings arising from a failure to catch tone in writing, the English printer Henry Denham invented a mark denoting sarcasm. Denham offered his sign in 1575. A mirrored question mark, he hoped, would flag up a rhetorical question, making it easier to get the drift of the writer’s intention. But it never caught on.

Others have also tried to introduce new forms of punctuation: in 1668, the English natural philosopher John Wilkins suggested the upside-down exclamation mark to denote irony; in 1781, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed his wish that there were a point d’ironie; in 1899, the French poet Alcanter de Brahm tried to bring back Denham’s mirrored question mark to signal irony, as did the French writer Hervé Bazin in 1966, humorously proposing a mark reminiscent of the Greek letter psi fused with an exclamation mark. The American advertising executive Martin Speckter invented the interrobang for rhetorical questions in 1962, through a superimposition of question and exclamation mark, and late-20th-century digital talkers experimented with ‘sartalics’ (backwards-slanting italics). The latest in this series is the trademarked SarcMark in 2010, a snailshell-like spiral that can be added to your smartphone fonts.

None of these has caught on, so to help us through we try… another textual mark: the octothorpe, or hashtag, migrating from the old pound sign and American-style numbering to a category tag and meta-commentary on Twitter and other social media. #Sarcasm gives retrospective information on how to understand the tone of what is written. Indeed, we have become so familiar with the hashtag comment that written habits have leaked back into our daily conversations, mirroring online meta-commenting afterthoughts (for example, ‘He didn’t remember his boss’s name. Hashtag awkward!’).

The fact that we haven’t jubilantly included any of these marks, and ‘hashtagging’ in speech is clunky, suggests that, perhaps, the ambiguity of texts is something important and necessary, something we feel drawn to and need, not a problem in every instance to be solved. Signalling irony in a Jane Austen dialogue through punctuation is probably as euthanising as explaining a joke.

The full stop spells finality, and can seem rude if used in the potentially infinite medium of the digital scroll

With the advent of the personal computer and the internet, we’ve found ourselves faced with new punctuation marks. Colon and brackets have been repurposed as emoticons that try to capture the minimal basics of feeling (variations of happy and sad). Most digital writing platforms now allow a vast range of emoji icons for all sorts of moods, situations and objects. While we might defuse an ambiguous text message with a winky emoji – that is, an image – we still reach for punctuation to emphasise, shout or imply. It seems that images can get us only so far, while punctuation (including capitalisation) offers a more subtle spectrum of written expression. RIGHT?????!!!!!????

Much as it did for Russian typesetters, punctuation can still make us angry. Studies on punctuation in informal live-chatting situations have shown that replying to a question with a one-line message followed by a full stop, such as ‘sure.’ or ‘okay.’ rather than ‘sure’ and ‘okay’, comes across as abrupt and insincere. The full stop spells finality, and can seem rude and uncooperative if used in the potentially infinite medium of the digital scroll that is instantaneous text messaging. Someone who goes to the extra effort of adding punctuation to a message that’s about exchanging information, rather than more complex communication, surely implies some deeper meaning, we believe. However, when digital talking is less speech-like, becoming a way to send messages longer than a spontaneous invitation or flirty banter, punctuation (including the full stop) remains largely intact. The American linguist Tyler Schnoebelen examined 157,305 text messages on his own phone, realising that those containing fewer than 17 characters, and the short cuts ‘lol’, ‘haha’, ‘yup’ and ‘ok’, were unlikely to contain punctuation. Messages longer than 72 characters and that contained words such as ‘think’, ‘feel’, ‘know’, ‘seems’ and ‘sad’ were punctuated according to offline habits, suggesting that we’re highly adept at fashioning our punctuation (or lack thereof) to the purpose and style of our texting.

In spite of what it might look like on the surface, anybody who casts an eye over their text messaging will realise that punctuation is very much not dead. It changes, yes, but it has always done that. Some signs might morph into new shapes, acquire new tasks and new meanings. That, too, has happened before. The future will depend on the technology we use to write, and what we need. Or want.

Florence Hazrat

is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, working on parentheses in Renaissance romance. Her first book ‘Refrains in Early Modern Literature’ is forthcoming, and she is currently writing a book called ‘Standing on Points: The History and Culture of Punctuation’.

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