A Brief History of Punctuation

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Punctuation is so commonplace in English, you might think it was always the way it is now. But, you’d be wrong! Our modern form of punctuation is actually a relatively recent evolution in writing. And, punctuation has a surprisingly rich history from the period to the semicolon.

Ancient History

Keith Houston of the BBC has a very detailed timeline for the history of punctuation. Basically, the earliest use of punctuation can be traced back tot he 3rd century BC, where the philosopher Aristophanes, tired of the painstaking length of time it took to read his library of scrolls, came up with a unique solution.

You see, Greek, like many non-glyphic (i.e. Mayan and Mandarin) languages of the day were completely run-on, meaning everythingwaswrittenlikethisandheyisntthisreallyhardtoread.

He proposed three types of dots to allocate pauses – a small dot for a short pause (like a comma), a middle dot for an intermediate pause (like a semicolon), and a bottom dot for a full stop. Now, readers would know when to pause and for how long to produce cohesive and understandable speech.

Unfortunately for Aristophanes, the growing Roman empire soon took over the reins of things, and were quite insistent that the speaker should exert discretion over his or her rhythm of speech and shouldn’t be bound by dots or pauses in writing.

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Later, in the 7th century, Isidore of Seville resurrected the whole dots idea proposed by Aristophanes, and he went beyond the simple method of dots for pauses and attached a more significant meaning to each dot: the highest dot marked the end of a sentence while the lowest one acted as a sort of proto-comma.  His most famous work, Etymologiae, covered a wide range of topics including geometry, music, and grammar, and was treated as a textbook in the Middle Ages. The slash also made it’s appearance around this time (/) and had the same purpose as the modern day comma.

Modern History

The question mark (?) came into standard usage in the 15th century and was known as the punctus interrogatives, or point of interrogation. Nobody knows for sure how the shape came about, but Oxford Dictionaries offers the theory that it began as a dot with a rising tilde (. + ~) to denote upward inflection. Just like many letters and words, this theory states the question mark transformed into what it is today due to the vast amount of people approximating its shape in writing. Another theory in Oxford states that it’s a combination of the lowercase ‘q’ and ‘o’ from the Latin qvaestio (question).


Both the colon (:) and semicolon (;) were featured in Gregorian chants with the colon as the punctus elevatas (elevated point) and the semicolon as the punctus versus (long pause). The colon can be traced back to the 17th century to denote a pause greater than a comma but less than a full stop, and originally looked like an upside down semicolon. The semicolon was first written in 1494, where a printer named Aldus Manutius the Elder used it to separate words. He posited it allowed the writer to produce new ideas and topics between phrases without producing a new sentence.

The exclamation mark (!) is also a bit shrouded in mystery, but one popular theory states it comes from the Latin word for an exclamation of joy, io, with the ‘i’ connected and placed above the ‘o’, which was shrunken to a period. It was first used in English in the 15th century but only actually had a dedicated key on a typewriter beginning in the 1970’s (fun fact).

The apostrophe (‘) became widely used in the 16th century and came into English for purposes of elision (i.e. to combine l’heure instead of la heure, or I’m instead of I am) or because a letter did not represented a sound in pronunciation (i.e. loved became lov’d). A standardized way of using the apostrophe wasn’t actually finalized until the 19th century, and is still in use today.

The comma (,) eventually replaced the slash over the centuries, and as for brackets, these made their way into English in the 14th century as chevrons (< >).

Finally, as noted above, the mighty period (.) has withstood the test of time since the days of Aristophanes, and holds the esteemed title of being the most common punctuation mark in English.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century solidified the importance of punctuation through the production of large-scale texts read by a great number of people.

Modern Changes

That’s not to say this is the end of the evolution of punctuation, given new speech patterns and cultural changes (hello, digital age).

The interrobang (?!, !?, ‽) has been a popular and very recent addition, and is mainly used as a combination of both a question mark and an exclamation mark.

Plus, bolding, underlining, and italics are all relatively recent additions to writing, popularized by modern word processing.

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And, let’s not forget about emojis.

Wrapping It Up

So, what does this all mean for your writing? Well, not much. But it’s a nice-to-know for trivia night.

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