Punctuation Marks

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Podcast Transcript

There was a time when languages had no punctuation. Not only did they not have punctuation, but they also didn’t even have spaces between words, and in some cases, they didn’t even use vowels. 

It was extremely confusing if you were trying to read something, so eventually, people began inserting marks and characters into text to make it easier to read. 

Learn more about punctuation marks and how and why they were developed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Language developed as a tool for oral communication. Humans were speaking with each other long before anyone developed a system to record words. 

When written language was developed, it was only known by a very few people and usually just to record basic information. 

For the purposes of this episode, I’m only going to be focusing on languages that use alphabets, not logographic systems like Chinese, which is a totally different thing, and eventually, I’ll just focus on English, which language that all of you listening know.

The first writing systems were extremely basic. Some of the first alphabetic writing systems, such as Phoenician and Hebrew, didn’t have lowercase letters, didn’t use spaces between words, and didn’t even use vowels. 

It is entirely possible to read something written without spaces, lowercase letters, or vowels. However, it is very slow going, and it is very easy to confuse what is being said. 

This type of writing became known as scriptura continua

In the ancient world there were, relatively speaking, few written documents. It was expected that it would take time to read a scroll, and it wasn’t something you would fully grasp on the first read-through. 

There was a second-century Roman writer named Aulus Gellius who refused to read out loud a manuscript that he had never read before because he said he would mangle the meaning. He gave the document to a bystander who could read, and the bystander did exactly that. 

One of the first people to attempt to use something like punctuation was the Greek scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium. He was the head librarian a the Library of Alexandria and was responsible for the many scrolls that the library held. 

He developed a system of dots that could be inserted into text which would indicate where to pause when speaking. The dot was the only symbol he used, but he used it in three different ways. It could be placed low, medium, or high, depending on how it was to be used. 

A low dot had the same function as a comma, a middle dot was similar to a colon, and a high dot was similar to a period. 

The marks created by Aristophanes of Byzantium weren’t really punctuation. They were designed for orators reading text, not denoting any sort of grammar.

Despite copying many Greek cultural innovations, the Romans never really adopted Aristophanes’ system universally. That was because the written word was subordinate to the spoken word to the Romans. They occasionally used some marks to indicate breaks, but there was no consistency with its usage.

It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that writing became more important. The Christians based their faith on written texts, particularly the Bible, so the creation and duplication of text were of central importance.

In the 7th century, Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks whose native language wasn’t based on Latin began using spaces between words. 

The bishop Isadore of Seville adopted a system similar to Aristophanes’ where he would use dots to represent pauses, but it wasn’t the same system.

Many scribes developed their own systems for breaks, so what sort of punctuation marks existed depended on who was doing the writing.

What really changed everything was the advent of the printing press and movable type. 

With movable type, there was now a need for a consistent standard for punctuation marks in text.  Standard-width text made it easier to read something without practice to decipher what the text meant. There was now a need to have a way to indicate where sentences ended and where there were pauses.

The printer who is credited with the creation of modern punctuation marks is Aldus Manutius. 

Manutius was a printer in Venice who popularized the use of a period, or full-stop as it is known in the Commonwealth, to end a sentence. He invented the semicolon, created the modern use of the comma, and popularized the use of parentheses. 

Each punctuation mark has a slightly different history and a different reason for its development. So here is a rundown of most of the popular punctuation marks and how they were developed. 

As I mentioned, the period, or full stop, is the oldest punctuation mark. The original use of a dot aligned at the bottom of the letters was used as a comma, and  Isadore of Seville began to use it as a sentence stop.

The word period comes from the Latin peridos. 

As we’ll see, the period really became the foundation for many other punctuation marks. 

The other major punctuation mark was the comma. 

The comma actually evolved from a mark known as the virgula suspensiva which began seeing use in the 12th century. The virgula suspensiva was a slash with a dot in the middle. 

The virgula suspensiva had the same function as a comma. 

Over time, the dot on the slash moved down until it became a dot with a tail below it, which was created by Aldus Manutius.

I, of course, can’t talk about the comma without mentioning one of the most heated debates in the world of grammar, the Oxford or Serial Comma. An Oxford Comma is the comma that is placed before the word “and” in a list in a sentence. 

Personally, I use the Oxford Comma because it can clarify potential confusion, and to be honest, I don’t really understand the argument against it or why people would feel so strongly against it.

The colon is based on Aristophanes’ mid dot. It was intended to be a pause in lengh between a comma and a period. It was eventually replaced with two dots instead of a middle dot. For a time, the colon was used to indicate the end of a sentence before it was replaced by the period. 

In the 17th century, in English, there was a use of a colon followed by a dash to indicate an extended pause. This actually appeared in some early printings of Shakespeare. The symbol was known as “the dogs bollocks” and fell out of use.

The semi-colon was also developed by Aldus Manutius. It was originally intended to be an intermediate pause between a comma and a colon, which is why it visually consists of a mix between a comma and a colon.

The modern apostrophe came from, you guessed it, the print shop of Aldus Manutius. Its original use was what was called the “French Style.” The French Style is the use of an apostrophe to replace a sound, usually a vowel, in the articles le or la. 

If you see something spelled L apostrophe something, that is the French Style.

This eventually was adopted in English in similar use for removing vowels, such as in the word I’m.  It was later adopted for all contractions and then for possessives. 

The exclamation point was first developed for English in the 16th century. It was originally just a straight line over a period. It was originally known as a point of admiration or a mark of admiration. The term exclamation point or exclamation mark didn’t come into use until the 19th century. 

Many early typewriters didn’t have an exclamation point key. To create one, you had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe over the period. 

The question mark is actually older than many other punctuation marks. The first known use of a mark to indicate a question comes from a 5th-century Syriac Bible. It was simply a double dot used at the start of a sentence.

In the 8th century, the symbol was called a lightning flash which was like the modern tilde symbol, which is a horizontal wavy line. 

This symbol was eventually turned vertically, curved even more, and then placed over a period. 

The question mark has been used in different ways in different languages. In Spanish, an upside-down question mark is placed at the start of a sentence. In Arabic, a mirror image question mark is used.

Parentheses, also known as brackets, were also first used by Aldus Manutius. They were the rounded brackets that were designed to look like the crescent moon. Since then there have been a host of similar brackets which serve similar purposes, including square brackets, angled brackets, and curly brackets.

Quotation marks were developed by the Ancient Greeks and then a similar system was adopted by Isadore of Seville to indicate what parts of a manuscript came from the bible.

The double apostrophe quotation mark came into use in Italy in the 15th century, and in the 19th century, variations in the quotation mark developed in different countries. 

For the most part, these were differences in typography with straight versus curly quotation marks and the direction they pointed. 

These are most of the keys on your keyboard and many of the other symbol keys I’ve discussed on a previous episode on the origin of math symbols. 

There are, however, other punctuation marks that are less popular which have been proposed. 

One such symbol is the Interrobang. The Interrobang is a combination of an exclamation point and a question mark. It is literally created by superimposing one over the other. ?

The interrobang was created by American advertising executive Martin Speckter in 1962. He proposed a single punctuation mark for a surprised question instead of putting an exclamation point next to a question mark.

The interrobang is part of the UNICODE character set and can be found in several fonts. 

Two other recent innovations are the question comma and the exclamation comma. They are basically the same as a question mark or an exclamation mark, except they are over a comma instead of a period. 

They were designed for use inside of a sentence, like a comma. These symbols never caught on. As far as I know, they aren’t part of any font set, ASCII, or UNICODE. 

Punctuation marks are so integrated into our language it would be very strange if we didn’t use them. Imagine how difficult and confusing it would be to read if there were no periods or commas. 

The development of punctuation marks maybe isn’t as important as the development of the alphabet, but it probably isn’t too far behind.