A History of English Punctuation in Twelve Stages: From the Full Stop to the Quotation Mark
It is September, the beginning of the school and academic year. That makes it appropriate for ESU-Scotland and the English Project to introduce a new series of monthly pieces that examine the English language.
The mission of ESU-Scotland is ‘to promote international understanding and human achievements through the English language throughout the world’.
The mission of the English Project is ‘to explore and explain the English language in order to educate and entertain English speakers’.
It is with our missions in mind that we choose our subjects, and a subject that has proved most popular with followers of the English Project is one with which we can start: punctuation.
In 2015, the English Project provided a history of English punctuation, and we chose to do that in 2015 because it was then 500 years since the death of Aldus Manutius.
Aldus Manutius was a Venetian printer who shaped the comma, invented the semicolon and created italic fonts. He may have been the greatest punctuator of all time. In celebration of the life and work of Aldus Manutius and in the course of that year, we looked at the twelve major punctuation marks. We started with the full stop. We ended with the question mark. Between stop and question come the semicolon, the colon, the comma, the slash, the hyphen, the parenthesis, the exclamation, the apostrophe, and the quotation mark.
A common count says that there are fourteen major punctuation marks. That is because the parenthesis, the bracket and the brace are counted separately. We take them together because they serve similar purposes and are best studied as variants one of another.
The English Project favours a historical, descriptive approach rather than a didactic, prescriptive approach. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, we prefer to describe not prescribe. History tells us why. Our twelve punctuation marks have been used in so many different ways over the past fourteen hundred years that there is no historical right way.
There is no authority to give rules. The most abhorred rule-break of the present day, the grocer’s apostrophe, ‘Apple’s £2 a kilo’, was common in the eighteenth century with the best authors. Among them Thomas Jefferson. And the mention of his name reminds us that the punctuation conventions of the United Kingdom are not identical with those of the United States. More about that too, as we go along.
We’ll start then with the full stop.
English-Speaking Union Scotland
The English Project
A History of English Punctuation in Twelve Stages: From the Full Stop to the Quotation Mark
1. The Full Stop.
The full stop is the first punctuation mark of the English language. It came into English writing a long time ago, and, since every sentence ends with one, the full stop is the most widely used punctuation mark by far.
In 597, Pope Gregory sent a party of monks to Canterbury, and they brought with them Christianity and the Roman alphabet. In 602, King Ethelbert of Kent asked those monks to write down the laws of his people. Since the king wanted the job done in English, the monks were obliged to adapt Roman letters to English sounds and Roman punctuation to English sentences. English spelling got a very good start. The monks made a near perfect fit between letters and sounds even inventing four new letters to represent Germanic sounds not found in Italic languages. English punctuation by contrast got off to a rocky start, but that was not the monks’ fault.
Much of the story is told in J. H. Chauvier’s Treatise on Punctuation, translated from the French in 1849. Early Western Christians wrote as the Romans wrote, and the Romans had no punctuation at all. They did not make spaces between their words, and their letters were all one size, big. That made for slow writing and slow reading. When the monks came along to serve as the scribes of the Church in the sixth century, they devised ways to speed things up. They accelerated writing by reducing the size of the letters and running them together so that their pens did not have to leave the page. That kind of writing is called ‘cursive’, Latin for running. The minuscules - the little letters - speeded writing but slowed reading. To speed reading, the monks put a dot between each word. Periodically, something more was needed, something to tell where one thought ended and another started. Roman rhetoricians had called that kind of break a periodus. To indicate it, the monks put three dots. They used a big letter, a majuscule, to show that a new periodus was beginning. Beyond the dots and different sized letters, the earliest punctuation was not very helpful. A little leaf or fruit drawn near a word could indicate a pause or a change of tone, but ornamentals never worked well.
Then one day it occurred to a monk that that there was no need for the dot. The space where the dot went was enough to show where one word ended and another began. In fact, the space was better than a dot, and the single dot became spare, but not for long. The dot could do the work of the ornamentals. A dot over a word came to indicate a pause; a dot after a word came to indicate equivalence; a dot under a word came to indicate a periodus. Those dots are the starting point of the modern comma, colon and full stop. Nonetheless, manuscript punctuation was never regular, it varied from one monastic order to another, and it was often left out altogether.
So things went for nine centuries, but, in 1476, a printing press arrived in Westminster. William Caxton, a man who had learned the new technology on the Continent, had set up shop and was producing books twenty times faster than a monk. Initially, Caxton experimented with different forms of punctuation but settled upon the stroke for marking groups of words, the colon for marking distinct syntactic pauses and the full stop for indicating both the end of a sentence and a brief pause. It was a start on a modern system of punctuation, but it was a confused start and other printers had other ideas.
Printers began to appear everywhere, and they wanted to sell books all over the country to an ever-increasing readership. Escaping the monastery and the library, books spread like wild fire. They needed new kinds of covers, title pages, fonts, formats, headings, sectioning, chaptering, spelling, and punctuation. By 1600, the book and page as we know them had emerged. Caxton's punctuation had been replaced; the comma had been substituted for the stroke and new punctuation marks had appeared.
Sadly, there were two great flaws in the printers’ settlement: spelling and punctuation. Both jobs were botched and have given problems ever since. The near perfect match that King Ethelbert’s monk had made between letters and sounds had not only been disrupted by the invasion of French spellings from 1066 onwards, but, even worse, William Caxton and his fellow printers were sorting things out just as the English Language was going through the Great Vowel Shift. But that is another story; what is relevant here is that the printers settled on punctuation marks no better than their spellings. Like the monks of the seventh century, the printers of the fifteenth century should not be blamed too greatly. Beyond a certain point, punctuation is subjective: it tries to do what voice change, hand gesture and body language do to augment speech. To do a good job we would need twenty or more unambiguous punctuation marks. We do not want to bother with more than twelve, and we want them all to do more than one job.
The monks asked the dot to do three things before two of the jobs were taken away when the colon and the comma were devised. (For their stories, wait for March and April.) The dot was then given the job of showing when a sentence ended. To do that it was put after the last word in the sentence; it was no longer put underneath it.
The English sentence, ‘a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate’, is more or less the equivalent of the Latin periodus. Consequently, sixteenth-century English schoolmasters called the dot a period. But to distinguish it from the half stop of the comma, the schoolmasters also called it a full stop. It was not until the nineteenth century that the British decided to go with ‘full stop’ and the Americans with ‘period’.
A Dot – A Periodus – A Period – A Full Stop – A Point - A Dot
The full stop is the fundamental punctuation mark, and its function is sufficiently unambiguous for it not to be much misused. However, it does not always mean that the end of a sentence has been reached. It is used to abbreviate names as in J. K. Rowling. It is used to abbreviate titles as in Mr., Dr., and so on. There are arguments around that usage because many people say that the full stop should only be used if a last letter is missing. The correct form of Mr., they say, is Mr without a full stop. But language correctness is a volatile issue, often a question of taste, class or obsession. There is no authority on earth to set rules of this kind and, so far, God has kept quiet on the matter. The full stop is also used in decimal numbers, to separate pounds from pennies as in £12.12 for example. There, it is called a decimal point, reminding us that punctuation comes from the Latin word punctum, a point, a break.
Another use of the full stop reverts to the earliest monkish usage when three dots were used to mark the end of a periodus. Three dots have returned to modern punctuation, and they are now used to indicate a gap in a text, what is called an ellipsis. But that is such a different use of the dot that it will be given its own month and get a full treatment in August.
2015, the year of punctuation, started with the full stop, but it’s worth recalling that the only aids to reading to be found in all medieval manuscripts were the spaces between words and the use of capital letters. Those are forms of punctuation so fundamental that they come before the beginning as it were. Today, we do not even think of them as punctuation until we come across something like www.englishproject.org. Then we realize that the very latest punctuation has reverted to monkish ways. And since the British and American programmers sorting out internet addresses in the 1960s had problems over the period/full-stop divide, they compromised by calling the newest-oldest punctuation mark a ‘dot’.
There is a full bibliography to go with this history of English punctuation and it will be supplied at the end of the academic year when we end with the question mark. Meanwhile, if anyone wishes to have a copy of the bibliography ahead of time, please contact me,
Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Winchester
This history of English punctuation first appeared as monthly posts on the English Project website (www.englishproject.org) in 2015. In condensed form, the posts appeared as an article: ‘The English Project’s History of English Punctuation’ in English Today 32.3 (September 2016): 45 – 51. Published online: 27 April 2016.