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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.

 

Suzanne Ensom

English-Speaking Union Scotland

 

Christopher Mulvey

The English Project

www.englishproject.org

 

 

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.