Full stop. Period!

Oct 20, 2010 by

Some time ago I wrote a posting on the use of spaces to separate words in writing. One of my students asked me when punctuation was introduced for further clarification of meaning. As it turns out, not until recently.

Several marks that we think of as punctuation today were originally used in place of spaces, that is to separate words. That’s how a single dot and a double dot (colon) were originally used. This is known as interpunct. Here’s an example of what it looked like in Latin:


Just as the interpunkt was an aid to reading, so were the later developments of punctuation marks. For example, Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama: this essentially helped the play’s cast to know when to pause. In particular, they used three different symbols to divide speeches, known as commas (indicated by a centred dot), colons (indicated by a dot on the base line), and periods or full stops (indicated by a raised dot). Confusing? Maybe so. But although the Romans used similar punctuation, it was not until a few centuries later that punctuation marks make the next step.

The next dramatic development of punctuation happened when large numbers of copies of the Christian Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud, and so there was an even greater need to clarify the text. So the copyists began to introduce a range of new punctuation marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks and an early version of initial capitals. St Jerome and his colleagues, who produced the Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin, developed an early system (circa 400 AD). This system was further improved on by Alcuin. The marks included the virgule (forward slash) and dots in different locations; the dots were centred in the line, raised or in groups.

The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has also been attributed to Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist, printer and publisher, who founded the Aldine Press at Venice, and his grandson. They have been credited with popularizing the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses and creating the modern comma by lowering the virgule (virgule is still the French word for ‘comma’). And it is generally the invention and popularization of printing that we have to thank for the punctuation marks.

How does punctuation assist reading? Think about this sentence:

Charles the First walked and talked Half an hour after his head was cut off.

Odd? Well, add punctuation marks and now it makes perfect sense:

Charles the First walked and talked; Half an hour after, his head was cut off.

And what about:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

Nonsense? Not if you punctuate it properly (although I must admit the sentence is somewhat twisted anyway). Can you figure out a way of punctuating this sentence sensibly? The answer in tomorrow’s posting.

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