Everyone is now expected to add punctuation when writing, but that wasn’t always the case. It took centuries for the English language to build up the list of rules that has now become commonplace. Here’s a brief look at how we came to use these well-known punctuation marks.
Colons, commas, and periods
During a time when the spoken word was the most powerful form of communication, texts were written without spaces or punctuation marks—it was infuriating. Greek playwright Aristophanes had enough and began what the writer Keith Houston—an authority on the subject due to his book, Shady Characters—calls the “punctuational big bang.”
Aristophanes created a system where people could add dots to lines of text to signify pauses. A dot in the middle (·) signified the shortest pause, called the comma. For an intermediate pause, known as the colon, the dot was at the bottom (.), and the period was the longest pause, represented with a dot at the top of the line.
Aristophanes’s system evolved over the years—the colon got an extra dot, the period dropped to the bottom of the line, and the comma got a curve and dropped to the bottom of the line—but it’s remarkable how much has stuck around.
Ellipses are used in text messages, novels, and news stories to different ends, but who was the first to use this often misunderstood form of punctuation? Anne Toner, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, thinks she’s found the earliest uses of the ellipsis. An 1588 edition of the play Andria by the ancient Roman slave-turned-playwright Terence uses hyphens instead of dots to mark an omission.
In a blogpost, she notes the importance of the use of ellipses in drama and then novels, where they were used to highlight interruptions and hesitations, so dialogue was more reflective of human speech.
Early quotation marks were quite different to their modern counterparts.
For one, they appeared in the margins of text and were represented by an arrowhead shape known as the diple (>). The diple came to be used as a quotation mark when early Christian writers used it to quote each other and heavily criticize other people’s interpretation of the Bible.
With the invention of the printing press, a pair of commas at the bottom of the line soon replaced the diple. The quotation mark was eventually rotated to the top, though Houston says no-one knows why.
The exclamation point is now used liberally in text messages, emails, and social media, but where did it originate? No-one really knows. One theory suggests the exclamation point is derived from the Latin word io, meaning “exclamation of joy,” where the “i” was written above the “o.”
Martin K. Speckter combined the question mark and exclamation point to create the the interrobang as a “typographically eloquent way in which to end a statement that expresses excited disbelief, asks a question in an excited manner, or proposes a rhetorical question.” The punctuation failed to catch on.
There are always rule breakers
While punctuation eventually evolved to be a standard convention in the written word, some of the greatest writers have shown it’s not the be all and end all. E. E. Cummings (or rather, e e cummings) was a poet who often broke the rules—with great effect.
He would capitalize only to make a point, utilized parentheses in unusual ways to add an extra layer to the poem, and liked to forgo spaces between words. His use of eccentric punctuation and experimentation with poetic form solidified his place as one of the greatest 20th-century poets.
James Joyce also forgoes standard forms of punctuation. The last episode of his most famous work, Ulysses, famously lacks any punctuation. What a way to end a novel.