English is Awful: A Brief History of Modern English Punctuation

ancient Greek writing chiseled on stoneAs with other confusing bits of our language and culture, punctuation got its start with the ancient Greeks.  Those bastards took a language that was once written without a single break (see that photo on the left) and started complicating things.  Instead of leaving language simple, they had to go and accidentally invent punctuation.

See, these guys were really into writing and giving speeches — it was, in fact, the mark of a gentleman and a scholar.  If you weren’t a decent orator, you were a failure as a man.  So, no pressure there.  This obsession with giving the perfect speech led these guys to begin using a series of dots to indicate where a speaker should pause in the speech and for how long.  Thanks to these ancient jerks, we got the period, comma and colon.  Written as a single, double or quadruple set of dots, these eventually evolved into the forms we know today.  That was about all you got in Ancient Greek… so what about the other major players?

Great Exclamations!

Until the invention of moveable type (thank you Johannes Gutenberg), all these Greek dots were mutating and evolving, but not in any consistent way.  Because of the rise of handwritten Bibles and their need to be read out loud with some passion, new indicators started to circulate as early as the seventh century, when Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes added their own touches to ancient Scripture.

Some time during this dark period, the exclamation point was born, the legend goes.  At first, it was written as “io” at the end of sentences, meant to indicate that the sentence was to be read with great admiration or joy (“io” is literally Latin for “joy”).  Over time, the two letters combined to create something similar to the exclamation point we know today, but it wasn’t introduced formally into printing until the 15th century.

Apparently early typewriter manufacturers didn’t think you’d need to show much joy while using their products, though, since they waited until the 1970s to add this key to the standard keyboard.  That probably explains why it’s the only useful piece of punctuation stranded up there with the numbers.

Wait, I Have a Question

The primitive question mark appears in handwritten Bibles at about the same time as the ancient exclamation point, io.  Like io, the question mark is believed to have started out as two letters: qo.  This is Middle Ages shorthand for the Latin quaestio, to question.  Also like with io, qo was originally written side by side, but eventually the q began its ascent up atop the o and the rest was just sloppy handwriting.

By the 13th century, you’d recognize the ancient qo as the question mark we know today, thanks to the efforts of scholars across Western Europe to standardize punctuation usage.  It drove them buggy that there were multiple punctuation systems in use, so they developed a cannon explaining how to do it properly, officially beginning a massive effort to bring punctuation systems into a single style.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s Nemesis

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” you’ll know the name Ben Jonson.  Those of you who have never seen that movie have to stop reading right now and go watch it.  Ben was ol’ Will’s nemesis, according to the movie, and there’s some proof that this might have been sort of true in real life.  Ben was a scholar, a poet and a working playwright, just like Willy, but unlike the roguish whore-monger Shakespeare, he held his profession in the highest esteem.  Writing wasn’t just a way for Ben to get girls.

Because of the complicated feelings he had for English, Ben wrote a pompous book attempting to formalize some components of the language in 1640, called “The English Grammar.”  There’s lots of good stuff in this book, actually, but for our purposes, we’re going to skip to the end where he discusses punctuation.  Ben rightfully calls this chapter “Of the Distinction of Sentences,” which is what any good punctuation does, at least in part.

He covers the basics — commas, semi-colons, parenthesis, the colon (“marked with two pricks”), the period (“one full prick”), the question mark and the exclamation point.  In 1640, that was good enough for pretty much everybody.  And for now, it’s good enough for us.  Hash tags and whatnot are covered much more completely in Keith Houston’s book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks.

You can check out Houston’s blog here, though I don’t recommend it unless you want to go down a rabbit hole of punctuation history you can’t really unsee.

Full disclosure:  I bought this book for my Kindle, I’ve not read it, but I’m sure it’s fucking lovely.  How could it not be?