The English Project’s History of English Punctuation

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The Revised Text of a Lecture Given on 13 October 2015, English Language Day, at the University of Winchester, UK

The mission of the English Project ( is to explore and explain the English language in order to educate and entertain the English speaker, and 2015 was the year of punctuation for the Project because 6 February 2015 was the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius. Aldus 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. We ‘punctuated’ the year by looking in turn at the full stop, the semicolon, the colon, the comma, the slash, the hyphen, the parenthesis, the exclamation, the apostrophe, the quotation mark and the question mark. Those twelve provide the fundamentals of English language punctuation, and all of them do more than one job. If we had a complete and unambiguous set of punctuation marks, we might need as many as fifty, but the writing world does not want the trouble of such precision. In just the same way, the writing world has never accepted the need for forty-four separate letters to match the forty-four separate sounds of the English language.  Providing a separate grapheme (letter) for every phoneme (sound) is the linguist’s business. Punctuation marks are ambiguous therefore. They suggest rather than define. They rely on context and the quick wittedness of the reader. If precision is needed, there are proofreader’s marks. Merriam-Webster lists forty-two of them, but proofreading is a special practice.

Punctuation marks are a special set of symbols, and of symbols and signs there is no end. Punctuation marks are regularly appropriated by the devisers of computer languages. Punctuation marks can become logotypes – ‘a single piece of type that prints a word’. The exclamation mark can be made to work like &, $, or @. There are fuzzy edges to the subject of punctuation.

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 punctuational deed of the present day is the grocer’s apostrophe: ‘Apple’s £2 a kilo’. But the use of an apostrophe to indicate a plural was common in the eighteenth century. The best authors did it, among them Thomas Jefferson. And the mention of his name points up the fact that the punctuation conventions of the United Kingdom are not identical with those of the United States.

Punctuation has varied over time and space, and, to talk about it, it is best to find a point at which to start. That might be with the Greeks and it could be with the Romans who took what punctuation they had (not a lot) from the Greeks, but it would be better to start with Saint Jerome, some fifty years or so before the English language had reach the island we now call Britain. In the year 400, Jerome produced the first complete translation of the Bible into Latin. To ensure that the word of God was read aloud correctly, he encouraged those who copied his bible to adopt a practice used for the education of Roman schoolboys. Classical Roman script had no word breaks and no small letters. What you got was an uninterrupted stream of capitals. Because that flow was difficult for the boys to handle, Roman schoolmasters would break the letters into sections and subsections - ‘per cola et commata’ - into colons and commas. The Christian monks found those breaks as useful as the Roman schoolboys. Jerome was satisfied that the Bible had a good chance to be read out intelligibly. Jerome’s Latin remained the Latin of the Church for the next thousand and more years, but already Latin was evolving into Italian, Spanish, French. Italian, Spanish and French monks were content with Jerome’s colons and commas, his sections and subsections, but it was a different story in the British Isles. Jerome’s Bible arrived in Ireland about the year 500, and, as conversion proceeded, Celtic monks struggled to master the sacred language of Rome. They needed all the help that Jerome’s ‘cola et commata’ could give them, but before they could make sense of the colons and commas, they needed to know where one word ended and another began.

So it was that in Hibernia monks began to put a punctus, a point, between individual words. In due course, the Germanic-speaking monks of the former Roman province of Britannia had the same struggle as the Irish monks with foreign nature of Latin. They too found a dot between words a great help. By Germanic-speaking monks, I, of course, mean, English-speaking monks, those Angle, Saxon and Jutish monks who began to copy Latin manuscripts in the seventh century. One day, one monk, somewhere, dispensed with the dot between words, inventing the greatest punctuation mark of all, the word space. That punctuator will have to be called Anonymous, but there is an Anglo-Saxon punctuator whom we can name, and he is Alcuin of York. His scriptorium at the Minster was so famed that when Charlemagne set about reforming his chancellery in Aachen, he asked Alcuin of York to take charge. Alcuin arrived and introduced the word space to continental Europe. That would have been at the end of the eighth century, about 800 or so. The punctus had been liberated from marking the end of words. A punctus or a dot over a word came to indicate a pause; a punctus or a dot after a word came to indicate the equivalence of the phrases on either side of it; a punctus or a dot under a word came to indicate a periodus. Colon, comma, and period were none of them placed on what we would call the line. Above, below or middle of the line were all one to a handwriting monk.

For a printer, things were different, and the printing press brought the biggest changes of all to European punctuation. Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, takes his place, after Jerome and Alcuin, as our third great punctuator. Beyond the major changes made by Gutenberg’s press is the lesser but important story of Gutenberg’s particular punctuation mark. It is the hyphen. Gutenberg used more hyphens per page than any printer, not before, because there weren’t any, but since. He used hyphens to reproduce on the printed page the magisterial double columns of the best manuscript pages. We use them rather differently, but like Gutenberg, we use them within the line of print, not below it as the monks had done. Moveable type spread rapidly across Europe, and it brought forward printers of genius, among them, William Caxton. Having learned his trade in Bruges, he established a print shop in Westminster in 1476. Caxton was troubled by placing the comma dot above words. He solved that by placing a stroke between words to act as a comma. The monks called that mark a ‘virgula’, a twig. Though the name remains the French word for a comma, the ‘virgule’, it is not our way of marking a comma. However, as the stroke, oblique or solidus, it is one of our twelve punctuation marks.

The comma, as we know it, had not to wait long, and it was one of the innovations of the greatest punctuator, Aldus of Mantua. Mantua was his place of birth, and Venice was his place of work. There he set up shop in the 1490s. He printed books in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He had exquisite fonts made for all three alphabets. Printer, publisher, writer, translator, scholar, artist, he was a simply wonderful man. The periodus now placed on the print line meant that the above-word comma dot could not simply be lowered to the line. Instead, Aldus had his font maker add an elegant curve to produce the beauty of the Renaissance comma. Aldus went on to combine the new comma with the old periodus to produce the semi-colon. When Aldus died in 1515, his innovations spread across Europe, taking with them modern, streamlined, in-the-line punctuation. Gradually, Aldus’s comma replaced Caxton’s virgula.

‘Commas, like nuns, often travel in pairs,’ says Mary Norris, the self-proclaimed Comma Queen of New York and of The New Yorker. Mary Norris joined The New Yorker in 1978, and she has been correcting commas and much else for the last forty years. The New Yorker watched over by Norris is probably the best-punctuated magazine in the world, but 500 years after Aldus, there is not the scope for the twenty-first-century punctuator that there was for the fifteenth-century punctuator. The time for inventing new punctuation marks has gone, not that people don’t try. In 1962 Martin K. Speckter combined the question mark and the exclamation mark to make something he called ‘exclamaquest’ and ‘interrobang’. The name ‘interrobang’ stuck, but the punctuation mark did not. Serious modern punctuators do not invent punctuation marks; they apply them with rigour and style. They write the guidebooks. We follow them.

The age of inventive punctuation was first that of the great originators: Gutenberg, Caxton and Aldus. Though they were scholars in their own right, especially Aldus, they were primarily artisans and businessmen. Their great job was to adapt the practices of the manuscript to the printed page. Their legacy has been a happy one. The second age of inventive punctuators immediately followed the first, but it is not such a happy story. The formidable figure Geoffroy Tory of Paris shows why. Tory was appointed France’s royal printer in 1530, and he was a man not content to print what was in plain sight. He was distressed by those French words that had lost their Latin spelling and had become, in the notion of the time, corrupted. To show what the spellings should be he introduced accents. Along with the acutes and graves, he brought in apostrophes. They may have been useful if France; they have been fatal in England. Like Geoffroy Tory, English printers began using apostrophes to show what was not there. Apostrophes did not say anything about the language on the page; they were talking about another language, Latin. And English scholars went one further than the French. Tory drew attention to missing French letters. The English were concerned about missing English letters, not only lost Latin spelling but lost Anglo-Saxon spellings too. Fourteenth-century authors and scribes had written ‘bookes’ and ‘bookis’ but those ‘e’s and ‘i’s ceased to be sounded in the fifteenth century. Sixteenth-century writers and printers began writing ‘books’. Seventeenth-century scholars, seeing linguistic corruption, began to write ‘book’s’, ‘book’s’ and ‘books’’. Listening, you cannot tell the difference. ‘Books’ sounds identical to both ‘book’s’ and ‘book’s’. The supererogatory apostrophe had arrived to confuse, dismay and enrage four hundred years of writers. By 1650, the English were using the full stop, comma, colon, semi-colon, hyphen, slash, and apostrophe with considerable variation and idiosyncrasy but moving towards modern usage. The parenthesis, the ellipsis, the exclamation, the quotation and the question marks remain.

Like the semicolon, the parenthesis is an early modern punctuation mark. It had some manuscript forerunners, and George Puttenham, among the first English writers to talk about it, wanted us to call it the ‘insertour’.  We decided against that. Rather than his rugged English word, we have preferred a pseudo-Greek one. Commas and even dashes can serve to set phrases and clauses aside, but parentheses proper come in four shapes: round, square, curly and angle. In some lists, round, square, curly brackets are treated as three separate punctuation marks, but that really won’t do. If we are to count round, square, curly brackets as separate, why not add a fourth, the angle bracket? All four are alike even though all four can be made to serve different purposes by different user groups. Mathematicians, logicians, physicists, and programmers give their own meanings to round, square, curly, and angle brackets.

Punctuation is a communal thing. A use has to be agreed by a group, but it does not have to be agreed by everyone. You’ll want your group to be as large as possible, perhaps, but, if you establish a conventional use and others follow you, then you have a functional punctuation mark. However, punctuation marks become symbols as they get further and further from prose and poetry. The exclamation demonstrates that. Ben Jonson, seventeenth-century England’s great punctuator, called it the admiration mark. It was also called a shriek and a screamer. Since then, it has been called a bang, a boing, a gasper, a pling, a slammer, and a Christer. In comic books, exclamation marks figure large and multi-coloured. They float above the heads of characters recently amazed, dazed or assaulted. Coming out of guns, they represent explosions. The exclamation is used as a mathematical symbol to indicate the multiplication of a descending sequence of natural numbers. 52! = 52x51x50x49x[…]x3x2x1. If you are reading mathematical formula out loud, you will say, when you come upon ‘52!’: ‘fifty-two factorial’, ‘fifty-two shriek’, or even ‘fifty-two bang’. That ‘bang’ shows us that mathematicians like to read comics.

Our twelve or so punctuation marks have very many more than twelve meanings. Most particularly, October’s mark, the apostrophe sign, signals thirteen different functions as prime mark, consonant, quotation mark, possessive, ditto and so on. One of its functions is to serve as an ellipsis mark in formations like ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t’, shortened forms of ‘do not’ and ‘will not’. Ellipsis deals with what is not said. It makes the reader do the work of the writer; never more so than when the ellipsis is signalled by three dots. Those potent dots suggest ironies, innuendoes, winks, and nods. They say more than the writer says. The multifunctional apostrophe, when called an inverted comma, becomes a quotation mark. Henry Fowler, author of The King’s English of 1906, thought that the educated man would not need quotation marks to tell him that well-known statements are quotation. In addition, he thought quotation marks ‘visually ugly interruptions to be avoided’. That there was a strong prejudice against the mark is obvious though it is not obvious why.

The quotation mark, like the ellipsis and the apostrophe, serves an editorial function; it provides a comment rather than a meaning or a measure. The quotation mark cannot be heard. That is why it is not unusual to see speakers at American academic conferences raising their hands to give tiny, curling waves of their index and middle fingers. They are signalling a quotation; it is a matter for the eye not the ear. On the radio, people will say ‘Quote Unquote’ and ‘In inverted commas’ to announce a quotation.

Now for the question mark. Its consistent use began with manuscripts produced for the court of Charlemagne in the late eighth century. Unlike the apostrophe and the quotation mark, the question signals something heard. People raise their voices at the end of sentences. This is such a strong indicator of interrogation that it can, on its own change, a statement into a question. ‘You’re going into town tomorrow.’ is a command. ‘You’re going into town tomorrow?’ is a question. Question marks mark questions, and questions are sounded, we like to think, by a rising terminal tone. Once upon a time when you heard a rising terminal, you knew that a question was being asked. That is not the case today. A linguistic phenomenon called the high rising terminal does not signify a question. Other names for the high rising terminal are upspeak, uptalk, rising inflection, and ADD. ADD stands for Australian Dialect Disease, and Australian soap operas have been blamed for spreading an infection. Neighbours and Home and Away are fertile breeding grounds for ADD, but ADD has infected American English as much as British English, and, anyway, Australians say they caught the disease from New Zealanders.

Well, there we have the past thousand years of English punctuation marks. What about the next thousand years? As a starter prediction, on English Language Day, in October, in Apostrophe month, I have to say that I think that the apostrophe is doomed. There is, of course, the Apostrophe Protection Society. It has the ‘aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language’. The society’s website has had close to two million visitors. That shows great interest and probably great support, but the need for protection signals a problem: contradictions guide the apostrophe’s use, and, when put to use, it is not much use. Apostrophists who have been corporally punished as a means of learning punctuation rules are most likely to demand that lesser generations learn those same rules. However, in the twenty-first century, well-beaten apostrophists are dying daily, and, in truth, there are no rules. Many people find that hard to accept, but there is no authority beyond usage. If the apostrophe’s outlook is gloomy, what is in the future for English punctuation marks in general? As word processing programs become ever more sophisticated, it is possible that our writing will become ever better punctuated as we become ever worse punctuators. That could be one effect of information technology, but IT, the great new language force, promises more.

The nineteenth century produced a great divergence in punctuation; the twenty-first century will see a great convergence. The American quotation gesture is two fingered because Americans use double quotation marks where the British use single quotation marks. American and British practices are opposites because of developments in the nineteenth century. Then a regularizing and generalizing of punctuation took place with the arrival of steam-driven printing presses and giant publishing houses. Conventions spread from London and New York, but they did not spread from New York to London or from London to New York. Beyond national borders, American dependencies followed New York and British colonies followed London. Canada alone got a complication of both styles. The Atlantic was a formidable cultural barrier in the nineteenth century. It is not in the twenty-first. No ocean blocks net writing; it comes from anywhere and everywhere and very much of it in English.

Chatters, bloggers, blaggers, emojists, emailers, moogers, texters and twitters use punctuation as decoration and cosh, but, though they produce the bulk of web writing, they do not set standards. Newspapers, publishing houses, organizations, companies, institutions, universities, agencies and governments post millions of pages that take punctuation seriously. On those pages, there is a drift towards the practice of the largest user group: the North American. Canada’s conflict is disappearing. The Caribbean and Australia are becoming less British by the posting. Asian English long ago moved to American norms. That we will all be using American punctuation conventions in 2115 is very likely. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing from the English Project’s point of view. There is, however, a punctuation development that is more interesting, something suggested by present-day punctuation extremes.

A trend towards reduced punctuation can be seen among emailers. Some of them use no punctuation at all. Lax emailers, as I have already suggested, are not likely to become writerly role models, but something similar can be seen in experimental writing. Famously, the final chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce has no punctuation beyond two full stops. Joyce does uses capital letters but the poet e.e. cummings did not. In 2014, Will Self published a novel, Shark, that has no paragraph breaks. Self did it as a strike against what he calls the last Gutenberg generation. That’s anyone over thirty, the last generation brought up on printed books. Self believes that print-bound Gutenbergers impose print values on the print-free Netizens. That’s anyone under thirty, citizens of the net. Experimental punctuators generally remove rather than add. Self removes paragraph breaks. Cummings removed capital letters. Joyce removed everything but capitals. However, it is the net that shows the ultimate stage in punctuation removal. In the website address ‘’, you none of you will be surprised to hear that ‘englishproject’ is all one word in lower case. Web addresses are not just pre-Gutenberg; they are pre-Alcuin. Alcuin of York, remember, introduced the word space. It is the most fundamental of all punctuation marks despite the fact that it is not a mark at all. Will Self’s next novel, he might want to call it Minnow, should remove not only paragraph breaks but word breaks as well. Minnow would be a huge streak of uninterrupted letters. Reading it would make us appreciate the work of the great punctuators from Saint Jerome through Aldus Manutius to Mary Norris.




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