The Evolution of Punctuation in Western Civilization

Punctuation: An Ever Evolving Form of Communication

The word “punctuation” comes from the Latin punctus, meaning “point.” Indeed, punctuation marks were originally called “points” (Partridge 3). Therefore, “punctuation” means “the use of points” (Reimer par 2). Malcolm Beckwith Parkes wrote in his authoritative work Pause and Effect that “punctuation is a phenomenon of written language, and its history is bound up with that of the written medium” (1). Indeed, the evolution of punctuation runs parallel with the development of technology surrounding the written word, and the dissemination of the ability to produce the written word has allowed more and more individuals to participate in that evolution. Students today learn set rules, and yet, punctuation is an ever-changing and reinterpreted aspect of conveying meaning to a reader. As Pico Iyer wrote in an essay for Time magazine, “By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between people using the words” (Iyer 80). As our understanding of the relationship between the reader and the written word, and the technology used to convey the written word, has evolved, so has our understanding and use of punctuation.

Reading As a Byproduct of the Spoken Word

Saint Augustine, in the dialog De Magistro, said of the reader’s experience of writing, “thus it is that when a word is written it makes a sign to the eyes whereby that which pertains to the ears enters the mind” (Ita fit cum scribitur verbum, signum fiat oculis, quo illud quod ad aures pertinent veniat in mentem) (Parkes 9). Therefore, Augustine viewed writing as a mere representation of the spoken word. Writing arose from a culture of oratory, wherein the ability to make a good speech in tribunals and public assemblies was considered the ideal. Parkes notes that “literacy was the product of a conservative educational tradition in which teaching was directed towards the preparation of pupils for effective public speaking” (9). The ability to read was of secondary concern. At that early time, it was a rather unheard-of idea for someone to read silently. Because the words were meant to be spoken, it was inconceivable that a good reading could occur without it being spoken aloud.

Figure 1: Scripta Continua as seen in an early copy of Virgil’s Aeneid (Parkes 162)

Early Punctuation and the Emergence of Conventions

The oldest-known method for organizing and formatting text was called scripta continua (fig 1), “continued script,” in which there were no spaces between words, and all letters were the same height. It has been found in surviving texts from as early as the second century BCE (Parkes 161). It is hard to imagine a time in which something as simple as separating words had not yet been invented. Eventually, however, scribes recognized that it would be useful to indicate moments of pause for dramatic effect, and opportunities for the reader to breathe. One can see forms of this in figure 1 (circled), as this particular scribe employed early periods and apostrophes. By the twelfth century, the fundamental conventions of writing had been established (Parkes 41). Scribes began to use word separation and varied letter height to aid readers and create word units. However, scribes were at liberty to copy, or not copy, punctuation marks from works they were reproducing. The twelfth century saw a decline in monastic scribes, and an increase in commercial scribes who copied books both for customers and for themselves. Because the commercial scribes did not work with the same sort of discipline and practice seen in a monastery, they were often left to their own devices in deciphering unfamiliar punctuation, or even layers of different superimposed marks from generations of readers, in a work. Such scribes often ignored the confusion in favor of whatever system they preferred (Parkes 42).

The Period

As stated before, punctuation was originally called “points,” and the use of them called “pointing.” This is, perhaps, due to one of the first and (arguably) the most important of them all: the period. The period has also been called a point, full (or perfect) point, full (or complete) pause, and full stop. It was called a “period” because it came at the end of a periodic sentence (Partridge 9), and thus referred to the sentence as a whole, rather than just the mark. In French, the periode, Latin the periodus, and Greek the peridos, from peri, meaning “round” and hodos, “a way,” and thus “a going round,” or “a rounding off,” especially as applied to time, and more especially still to the time represented by breathing (Partridge 9). It provided an opportunity for the reader, who was originally assumed to be reading aloud, to breathe between sentences.

The Comma

The comma is a Latin translation of the Greek homma, related to hoptein, “to cut,” and thus “a cutting” or “a cutting off.” As a comma tends to separate a clause, it can be seen as “cutting the clause off” from the rest of the sentence. In Italian, the word comma actually means “paragraph,” as in a section of the work that is cut off, or separated, from the rest of the work. The comma originally looked a little like a modern question mark, with the curved part we now use situated above a period:  This older version was used most frequently by fourteenth-century scribes, but became the modern version once the printing press was invented (Parkes 303). The virgil, or “/”, was originally used by the French as a comma. It is more commonly known as the oblique, or oblique stroke/line. The French still call a comma virgule, from the Latin virgula, a small rod, even though they now use the modern small semi-circular form (Partridge 151).

The Paragraph

The paragraph was originally indicated by a stroke, usually with a dot over it. It was used especially to indicate the various characters in a speech or stage play. Understanding this leads one into the etymology of the word itself. “Paragraph” comes from the Late Latin paragraphus, Greek paragraphos, which mean a line or stroke drawn at the side: para (beside) and graphein (to write). The modern practice of indenting at the start of a new paragraph, in fact, comes from the habit of early printers to leave a blank space for an illuminator to insert a large decorated initial (Partridge 165).

The Printing Press Establishes Early Standardization

It was not until the printing press that standardization of punctuation occurred, mostly due to an Italian printer by the name of Aldus Manutius, who operated his “Aldine” Press in Venice (Partridge 6) in the fifteenth century (Parkes 51). He is also attributed with the invention of the Italic form. The font which he produced became the European norm of the time, and was called the “old roman” letter. It was in this “old roman” font that some of the more familiar versions of modern punctuation can be found, such as the “semi-circular ‘comma’, the semi-circular parentheses, the upright interrogativus , and…the semi-colon” (Parkes 51). The invention of the printing press, by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century, allowed books to be produced at a far faster rate than before, causing a “great increase in the number produced” (Kreis). Thus, more books were getting into the hands of more people. Though the production of the books was retained by the press operators, the written word itself, and its punctuation, was being seen by more than just scholars and the wealthy or noble.

Technology as Broader Communication Tools

The invention of the typewriter further disseminated the production and use of the written word, and punctuation. Though it only last a few hundred years, it put the creation of the written word into the hands of mere mortals, as long as they could afford to buy one. The patent for the first typewriter was issued in 1714 (The Typewriter). It was originally conceived of for business and government use, but was quickly integrated into the public use. Many great novelists wrote their work on a typewriter. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road using a continuous roll of teletype paper fed into a typewriter (Two-Minute History). Soon, though, the computer came along. It, too, was originally conceived of for business and government, but as time went by, more and more people had a computer in their home. Finally, the advent of the internet allowed for all of our digital words to quickly and easily flood out into the world.

Modern Evolutionary Steps

Even today, we can see a continued evolution of punctuation. For example, digital discourse has evolved punctuation into a form of visual-linguistic art, called emoticons, and are used to express whole words and emotions by the combination of multiple punctuation marks and letters. The smiley face, represented by “:)” or “:-)”, is one of the more common of such emoticons (Garrison 119). It is created using a colon and an end parenthesis, or a colon, hyphen, and end parenthesis. Though not accepted in the context of formal work, the use of emoticons and other specialized abbreviations of phrases are being assessed as a separate and legitimate new aspect of language, made possible by the advent of digital publication. As David Bergland wrote in Printing in a Digital World, “digitalization is just the most recent step in the abridging tactic of language. So language survives digitalization easily because it has already traveled most of the way there” (Brody 156). Language, like punctuation, is fluid and constantly changing based on the needs of the people who use it. Research indicates that one of the ways emoticons are used in online discourse is as an enhancement to punctuation. Emoticons are used in several places within an online utterance: before the utterance, in the middle of the utterance, after the utterance, and alone as the entire utterance. An utterance, as used in this context, is any expression used in online communication, such as a text message, email, or instant chat session. The repetitive use of such emoticons, and in such ways, indicates that there is a generally-known convention about their use. When emoticons are seen to be used in the middle of sentences, they often “[distinguish] the main idea of the utterance (the subject) from its supporting information” (Garrison 122). The emoticon is thus being used to punctuate the utterance in a manner much like a comma or a colon (Garrison 115). They set the tone and nuance of the communication, and indicate the expected response for the utterance in ways that the early punctuation marks set the pause and breathing marks for people who read a piece aloud.

Seeing Deeper Into a Message

The better we, as writers and readers, understand how punctuation affects our words, the more powerful our words will be, and the more enduring the message. Iyer put it very eloquently when he said “punctuation, in short, gives us the human voice, and all the meanings that lie between the words” (80). A string of words has meaning, but often too many possible meanings or a meaning that is very different from the one intended. It isn’t until punctuation is inserted that the nuance of meaning is established and the message clarified. For example, in the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves (seen left), the author uses the title itself to prove her point. Read without the comma, as “eats shoots and leaves,” it suggests that a panda much like the one on the cover eats the shoots and leaves of bamboo trees. Yet with the comma, it reads as “eats, shoots, and leaves”—an altogether different connotation entirely, especially where the panda is concerned. The panda on the 2004 cover knows its stuff, though, and is seen on a ladder eliminating the deadly comma.

Punctuation as Art

Punctuation often appears to be the workhorse of the literary world, but it has a creative side as well. Punctuation is much like a refined brushstroke. A painter must first understand how to properly use the medium before creativity can be unleashed. Picasso began formal art study at six or seven (McNeese 17). It wasn’t until he mastered his technique and understanding of the medium that he could form his own style and begin to explore the deeper creative realms of his art. Indeed, Picasso deconstructed painting in a series labeled as his “Cubist” period, where objects are painted as though seen from many different angles at once. A similar deconstruction occurs in the poem “One” by E.E. Cummings, from his series 95 Poems (seen left). In this poem, Cummings plays with font (mis)representation, placement, and the meaning of parentheses to create a simple poem but a powerful meaning. The font character “1” can appear to mean both the number “one” or the lowercase version of the letter “L.” That is, at least, in the Times New Roman font, which is the font used for the poem itself. The title of the poem, being the first in a series of ninety-five poems, leads the reader to see this character as a “one.” Cummings does love his parentheses; the image isolated by them is of a leaf falling. Yet once we get to the end of the parentheses, there we have “one” again, followed by what appears to be another numeral “one” and the confusing “iness.” What could this mean? We go back and read the poem again, this time ignoring what was inside the parentheses (as it is theoretically extraneous information), and we come to the conclusion of the poem: loneliness.  Thus, in just twenty-three characters and only two punctuation marks, we are shown the depth of the loneliness in a singular falling leaf.

Punctuation’s Evolutionary Past, Present, and Future

Though the average English class would make someone think otherwise, the use of punctuation and its rules and symbols have evolved drastically over time. The understanding of and requirements for the written word have informed decisions about punctuation and determined how they have evolved. When writing itself was a new technology, written language started as the record of oratory, and marks were made to assist that goal. As understanding of the written word and its relationship to the reader evolved, so did the marks. When the printing press was invented, the format and technology of the written word further evolved, and the marks were developed into a standard. Now, with the advent of electronic communication, we are seeing further evolution in the use of punctuation marks. The dissemination of our written language has enabled more and more individuals to participate in the ongoing dialog of language and punctuation use. This, in turn, has shaped the direction and flow of punctuation evolution. More people using punctuation means more people thinking about, and redrawing the lines of, punctuation. Though proper knowledge and use of punctuation is critical to the effective communication of ideas, there is still much room for manipulation of the marks to bridge the gap between the word and the mind, between the mind and the imagination. Our world is evolving before our very eyes, and one need only look to punctuation to see the proof.

Works Cited

Brody, Jennifer Devere.  Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Cummings, E.E. 95 Poems. New York: Liveright, 2002. Print.

Garrison, Anthony, et al. “Conventional Faces: Emoticons in Instant Messaging Discourse.” Computers & Composition 28.2 (2011): 112-125. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 September 2011.

Iyer, Pico. “In Praise of the Humble Comma.” Time June 1988: 80-81. Print.

Kreis, Steven. “The Printing Press.” History Guide. 2004. Web. 11 October 2011.

McNeese, Tim. Pablo Picasso. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. Print.

Parkes, Malcolm Beckwith. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Partridge, Eric. You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953. Print.

Reimer, Stephen R. “Manuscript Studies: Medieval and Early Modern; IV.vii. Paleography: Punctuation.” Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta, 1998. Web. 22 September 2011.

“The Typewriter: an Informal History.” IBM Archives. IBM August 1977. Web. 11 October 2011.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Pengui-Gotham, 2003. Print.

“Two-Minute History of the Kerouac Scroll.” Kerouac Scroll Tour Schedule. On the n.d. Web. 11 October 2011.

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