The mysterious origins of punctuation (2023)


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The mysterious origins of punctuation (1)

By Keith Houston2nd September 2015

(Video) A brief history of punctuation

Commas, semicolons and question marks are so commonplace it seems as if they were always there – but that’s not the case. Keith Houston explains their history.


As readers and writers, we’re intimately familiar with the dots, strokes and dashes that punctuate the written word. The comma, colon, semicolon and their siblings are integral parts of writing, pointing out grammatical structures and helping us transform letters into spoken words or mental images. We would be lost without them (or, at the very least, extremely confused), and yet the earliest readers and writers managed without it for thousands of years. What changed their minds?

In the 3rd Century BCE, in the Hellenic Egyptian city of Alexandria, a librarian named Aristophanes had had enough. He was chief of staff at the city’s famous library, home to hundreds of thousands of scrolls, which were all frustratingly time-consuming to read. For as long as anyone could remember, the Greeks had written their texts so that their letters ran together withnospacesorpunctuation and without any distinction between lowercase and capitals. It was up to the reader to pick their way through this unforgiving mass of letters to discover where each word or sentence ended and the next began.

In early Greece and Rome, persuasive speech was more important than written language

Yet the lack of punctuation and word spaces was not seen as a problem. In early democracies such as Greece and Rome, where elected officials debated to promote their points of view, eloquent and persuasive speech was considered more important than written language and readers fully expected that they would have to pore over a scroll before reciting it in public. To be able to understand a text on a first reading was unheard of: when asked to read aloud from an unfamiliar document, a 2nd Century writer named Aulus Gellius protested that he would mangle its meaning and emphasise its words incorrectly. (When a bystander stepped in to read the document instead, he did just that.)

The mysterious origins of punctuation (2)

In early Greece and Rome, understanding a text on a first reading was unheard of (Credit: Getty Images)

(Video) The origin of full stop punctuation

Joining the dots

Aristophanes’ breakthrough was to suggest that readers could annotate their documents, relieving the unbroken stream of text with dots of ink aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (·) of each line. His ‘subordinate’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘full’ points corresponded to the pauses of increasing length that a practised reader would habitually insert between formal units of speech called the comma, colon and periodos. This was not quite punctuation as we know it – Aristophanes saw his marks as representing simple pauses rather than grammatical boundaries – but the seed had been planted.

The mysterious origins of punctuation (3)

The Romans eventually abandoned Aristophanes’ system of dots without a second thought (Credit: Classic Image / Alamy)

Unfortunately, not everyone was convinced of the value of this new invention. When the Romans overtook the Greeks as the preeminent empire-builders of the ancient world, they abandoned Aristophanes’ system of dots without a second thought. Cicero, for example, one of Rome’s most famous public speakers, told his rapt audiences that the end of a sentence “ought to be determined not by the speaker’s pausing for breath, or by a stroke interposed by a copyist, but by the constraint of the rhythm”.

Books became an integral part of the Christian identity

(Video) When Did People Start Using Punctuation?

And though the Romans had experimented for a while with separating·words·with·dots, by the second century CE they had abandoned that too. The cult of public speaking was a strong one, to the extent that all reading was done aloud: most scholars agree that the Greeks and Romans got round their lack of punctuation by murmuring aloud as they read through texts of all kinds.

Writing comes of age

It was the rise of a quite different kind of cult that resuscitated Aristophanes’ foray into punctuation. As the Roman Empire crumbled in the 4th and 5th Centuries, Rome’s pagans found themselves fighting a losing battle against a new religion called Christianity. Whereas pagans had always passed along their traditions and culture by word of mouth, Christians preferred to write down their psalms and gospels to better spread the word of God. Books became an integral part of the Christian identity, acquiring decorative letters and paragraph marks (Γ, ¢, 7, ¶ and others), and many were lavishly illustrated with gold leaf and intricate paintings.

As it spread across Europe, Christianity embraced writing and rejuvenated punctuation. In the 6th Century, Christian writers began to punctuate their own works long before readers got their hands on them in order to protect their original meaning. Later, in the 7th Century, Isidore of Seville (first an archbishop and later beatified to become a saint, though sadly not for his services to punctuation) described an updated version of Aristophanes’ system in which he rearranged the dots in order of height to indicate short (.), medium (·) and long (·) pauses respectively.

The mysterious origins of punctuation (4)

Books became an integral part of the Christian identity, acquiring decorative letters and paragraph marks (Credit: Alamy)

Moreover, Isidore explicitly connected punctuation with meaning for the first time: the re-christened subdistinctio, or low point (.), no longer marked a simple pause but was rather the signpost of a grammatical comma, while the high point, or distinctio finalis (·), stood for the end of a sentence. Spaces between words appeared soon after this, an invention of Irish and Scottish monks tired of prying apart unfamiliar Latin words. And towards the end of the 8th Century, in the nascent country of Germany, the famed king Charlemagne ordered a monk named Alcuin to devise a unified alphabet of letters that could be read by all his far-flung subjects, thus creating what we now know as lowercase letters. Writing had come of age, and punctuation was an indispensable part of it.

(Video) Do NOT go down this YouTube Rabbit Hole

Cutting a dash

With Aristophanes’ little dots now commonplace, writers began to expand on them. Some borrowed from musical notation, inspired by Gregorian chants to create new marks like the punctus versus (a medieval ringer for the semicolon used to terminate a sentence) and the punctus elevatus (an upside-down ‘;’ that evolved into the modern colon) that suggested changes in tone as well as grammatical meaning. Another new mark, an ancestor of the question mark called the punctus interrogativus, was used to punctuate questions and to convey a rising inflection at the same time (The related exclamation mark came later, during the 15th Century.)

The three dots that had spawned punctuation in the first place inevitably suffered as a result. As other, more specific symbols were created, the distinction between low, medium and high points grew indistinct until all that was left was a simple point that could be placed anywhere on the line to indicate a pause of indeterminate length – a muddied mixture of the comma, colon and full stop. The humble dot was put under pressure on another front, too, when a 12th Century Italian writer named Boncompagno da Signa proposed an entirely new system of punctuation comprising only two marks: a slash (/) represented a pause while a dash (—) terminated sentences. The fate of da Signa’s dash is murky – it may or may not be the ancestor of the parenthetical dash, like those that surround these words – but the slash, or virgula suspensiva, was an unequivocal success. It was compact and visually distinctive, and it soon began to edge out the last holdouts of Aristophanes’s system as a general-purpose comma or pause.

The mysterious origins of punctuation (5)

The emoji: a new form of punctuation? (Credit: Emoji)

This, then, was the state of punctuation at the height of the Renaissance: a mixture of ancient Greek dots; colons, question marks, and other marks descended from medieval symbols; and a few latecomers such as the slash and dash. By now writers were pretty comfortable with the way things stood, which was fortunate, really, because when printing arrived in the mid-1450s, with the publication of Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, punctuation found itself unexpectedly frozen in time. Within 50 years, the majority of the symbols we use today were cast firmly in lead, never to change again: Boncompagno da Signa’s slash dropped to the baseline and gained a slight curve to become the modern comma, inheriting its old Greek name as it did so; the semicolon and the exclamation mark joined the colon and the question mark; and Aristophanes’s dot got one last hurrah as the full stop. After that the evolution of punctuation marks stopped dead, stymied by the standardisation imposed by the printing press.

It is only now, with computers more widespread than printing presses ever were, that punctuation is again showing signs of life. The average 15th Century writer would have little difficulty in identifying the marks of punctuation that grace the computer keyboard, but they might be a little more surprised by the emoticons and emoji that have joined them on our screens. Punctuation, it turns out, is not dead; it was just waiting for the next technological bandwagon on which to leap. Now we’ve found it, it’s up to us readers and writers once more to decide how we’re going to punctuate our words for the next 2,000 years.

Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters, The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. More of his work can be found here.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to ourFacebookpage or message us onTwitter.

(Video) Where Did Punctuation Come From? (Mystery Hour)


The mysterious origins of punctuation? ›

The word is derived from the Latin punctus, “point.” From the 15th century to the early 18th the subject was known in English as pointing; and the term punctuation, first recorded in the middle of the 16th century, was reserved for the insertion of vowel points (marks placed near consonants to indicate preceding or ...

What is the origin of punctuate? ›

The word is derived from the Latin punctus, “point.” From the 15th century to the early 18th the subject was known in English as pointing; and the term punctuation, first recorded in the middle of the 16th century, was reserved for the insertion of vowel points (marks placed near consonants to indicate preceding or ...

Why was punctuation first invented? ›

Punctuation is historically an aid to reading aloud. The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.

What is the rarest punctuation mark? ›


It's also known as a triple asterisk. People have used asterisms to mark part of a text, or to indicate minor breaks (e.g., scene changes within a chapter in a novel). But this punctuation mark is rare these days, with a line of three or more asterisks more common.

What is the most misunderstood punctuation? ›

Colons and dashes are two of the most mysterious and misunderstood marks of punctuation. This handout is meant to demystify and clarify the function of these forms of punctuation, so that you can use them more accurately.

Did ancient Romans use punctuation? ›

The cult of public speaking was a strong one, to the extent that all reading was done aloud: most scholars agree that the Greeks and Romans got round their lack of punctuation by murmuring aloud as they read through texts of all kinds.

Did ancient Latin use punctuation? ›

Although spoken Greek and Latin did use punctuation to tell words apart, scriptio continua was used to save space and ink. Use of scriptio continua became less common after the fall of the Roman Empire, and spaces began to appear between words.

What are the 3 purposes of punctuation? ›

Correct punctuation adds clarity and precision to writing; it allows the writer to stop, pause, or give emphasis to certain parts of the sentence.

What year was punctuation added to the Bible? ›

It appears in some English translations of the Bible via its inclusion in the first printed New Testament, Novum Instrumentum omne by Erasmus, where it first appeared in the 1522 third edition.

Why do we use commas instead of periods? ›

Comma: breaks sentences into sections that are easier to understand, and allows you to add extra information and to separate items in lists. Period: closes sentences, and marks a clear break between units of sense.

What is the most overused punctuation? ›

Exclamation mark.

Maybe the most overused punctuation mark, or it certainly is in any message you get from my brother. If a text doesn't have at least two exclamation marks at the end of it I worry that he's ill.

What is the hardest punctuation to use? ›

The hardest punctuation mark to use correctly is the comma, an infographic from claims. That's because it has more rules and applications than any other punctuation mark.

What is the most misused punctuation mark in the English language? ›

The semicolon is the most commonly misused punctuation mark in the classroom. A semicolon punctuation mark is a symbol commonly used in the English language to punctuate complex sentences.

Which language did not use punctuation? ›

Chinese language

Chinese is therefore readable without spaces. On top of that, Chinese also lacked any form of punctuation until the 20th century when interaction with Western civilizations occurred.

What is the least used punctuation? ›

The pilcrow (¶) is the poster child of abandoned punctuation marks. With roots in ancient Greece, the pilcrow started life during the fourth century BC as the paragraphos, a horizontal line drawn in the margin of many a papyrus scroll to indicate that something of interest lay in the corresponding line.

Which language does not use punctuation? ›

Chinese is the language in which punctuation are not used.

What did Romans do with their periods? ›

In ancient Rome, women with heavy menstrual bleeding would be treated by applying ligatures to the groin and to the armpits, thus blocking off blood flow throughout the body. It was theorized this also resulted in the reduction of blood flow to the uterus.

Who invented the full stop? ›

The full stop symbol derives from the Greek punctuation introduced by Aristophanes of Byzantium in the 3rd century BCE. In his system, there were a series of dots whose placement determined their meaning.

Did Greek have punctuation? ›

Ancient Greeks did not use to indicate punctuation in their texts, apart from very exceptional cases; nor did they use to separate words with spaces, as we do.

Why did we stop using Latin? ›

Historians have since stated that Latin really became a dead language around 600-750AD. This is in line with the diminishing Roman Empire where few people could actually read, and the Italian, French and Spanish spoken language was rapidly evolving.

Why did the Romans stop using Latin? ›

To oversimplify the matter, Latin began to die out in the 6th century shortly after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. The fall of Rome precipitated the fragmentation of the empire, which allowed distinct local Latin dialects to develop, dialects which eventually transformed into the modern Romance languages.

Why don t we use Latin? ›

Not coincidentally, each language developed in former territories of the Western Roman Empire. When that empire failed, Latin died, and the new languages were born. Part of the reason that Latin passed out of common usage is because, as a language, it's incredibly complex.

What is the 14 punctuation marks? ›

There are 14 punctuation mark names that are commonly used in English grammar that children tto learn and understand in primary education. They are the period, questionmark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks, and ellipsis.

What are the 5 punctuation basics? ›

The most common punctuation marks in English are: capital letters and full stops, question marks, commas, colons and semi-colons, exclamation marks and quotation marks.

Does Hebrew have punctuation? ›

Hebrew punctuation is similar to that of English and other Western languages, Modern Hebrew having imported additional punctuation marks from these languages in order to avoid the ambiguities sometimes occasioned by the relative paucity of such symbols in Biblical Hebrew.

What is the oldest writing in the Bible? ›

Along with Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Vaticanus, it is one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible, and contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.
Codex Sinaiticus.
New Testament manuscript
Book of Esther
TextGreek Old Testament and Greek New Testament
Date4th century (after 325 AD)
9 more rows

What year was the Bible fully written? ›

The entire Hebrew Bible was complete by about 100 CE. The books of the New Testament were written in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.

What happens when you don't use punctuation? ›

But, and maybe it's only me, always leaving out the punctuation risks miscommunication. If the period or exclamation mark isn't there, then there's no indication of tone. Without cues to tone, the intention behind your messages may be lost. Your reader might think you're angry, dismissive, or don't care.

Why do Europeans use commas as decimals? ›

In France, the full stop was already in use in printing to make Roman numerals more readable, so the comma was chosen. Many other countries, such as Italy, also chose to use the comma to mark the decimal units position. It has been made standard by the ISO for international blueprints.

What are the 8 rules for commas? ›

Commas (Eight Basic Uses)
  • Use a comma to separate independent clauses. ...
  • Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. ...
  • Use a comma between all items in a series. ...
  • Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses. ...
  • Use a comma to set off appositives. ...
  • Use a comma to indicate direct address. ...
  • Use commas to set off direct quotations.

What is the most overused word? ›

15 Most Overused Words (and Their Alternatives)
  1. Amazing. You can hear it in your head by just reading the word on a page. ...
  2. Interesting. This word is used so often that sometimes it gets difficult to understand what a person means when they say it. ...
  3. Literally. ...
  4. Nice. ...
  5. Hard. ...
  6. Change. ...
  7. Important. ...
  8. Actually.
Feb 12, 2021

Why is there always comma before too? ›

When using the word too, you only need to use a comma before it for emphasis. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, a comma before too should be used only to note an abrupt shift in thought.

What is the most versatile punctuation? ›

The em dash is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English languages and can be used in place of other punctuation marks depending on the context they are used in.

What is the hardest grammar ever? ›


The grammar of Hungarian is significantly different from that of Indo-European languages such as English. The language has no grammatical gender and it uses suffixes instead of prepositions which makes Hungarian one of the most difficult languages in the world.

What is powerful punctuation? ›

1. The Full Stop [.] a. This is the strongest punctuation mark, making the most definite pause (in reading aloud or silently) when used at the end of a sentence.

What is the hardest grammar in English? ›

Here are a few of the more difficult grammar rules you can teach your students to help them master the purist's version of the English language.
  • Who v whom. ...
  • Sentences ending with a preposition. ...
  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction. ...
  • Different to v different from. ...
  • One word sentences. ...
  • Split infinitives. ...
  • Who v that.
Sep 14, 2017

What famous writer didn't use punctuation? ›

4) William Faulkner

Unlike Emily Dickinson, some writers used no punctuation at all! One of them was William Faulkner, a grand American novelist and Nobel Prize laureate, who, in the manner of stream of consciousness, loved to challenge his readers to tackle his sometimes confusing writings.

What is uncommon punctuation? ›


It's also known as a triple asterisk. People have used asterisms to mark part of a text, or to indicate minor breaks (e.g. scene changes within a chapter in a novel). But this punctuation mark is rare these days, with a line of three or more asterisks more common.

What is it called when you forgot a comma? ›

If you're one of those people whose writing gets corrected by someone else, you may sometimes get called out for using a comma where what's technically called for is a period or a semi-colon. It's called a comma splice (or comma fault, comma blunder, comma error, or don't do that with a comma).

Is there a language with no grammar? ›

One sometimes hears people say that such-and-such a language 'has no grammar', but that is not true of any language. Every language has restrictions on how words must be arranged to construct a sentence. Such restrictions are principles of syntax. Every language has about as much syntax as any other language.

Which languages have no grammar? ›

“But Chinese is such a simple language. It has no grammar!” Now of course, Mandarin has a grammar, because every language has a grammar. Now, it's true that Mandarin has almost no inflections, unlike most European languages.

Who actually spoke Latin? ›

Originally spoken by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River, Latin spread with the increase of Roman political power, first throughout Italy and then throughout most of western and southern Europe and the central and western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa.

What is the ironic symbol? ›

⸮ (irony mark), (reverse question mark, irony mark, antonym) are punctuation marks for irony (sarcasm). It takes the form of "?" (Question mark) inverted.

What is a hedera in writing? ›

Hedera is “ivy” in Latin, and this symbol was designed to look as pretty as a vine. Latin and Greek texts featured the attractive symbol as a paragraph divider. Though writers tend to use paragraph marks (pilcrows) now, the hedera was one of the first paragraph dividers.

What's a Hetera? ›

noun, plural he·tae·rae [hi-teer-ee]. a highly cultured courtesan or concubine, especially in ancient Greece. any woman who uses her beauty and charm to obtain wealth or social position.

Which language invented punctuation? ›

The Greeks first used punctuation marks around the 5th century BC. In addition, the Romans occasionally used symbols to indicate pauses in the 1st century BC, and by the AD 4th century, punctuation became prevalent. Later on, other languages continued to develop their own forms of punctuation as well.

Does Chinese have punctuation? ›

Yes, there is punctuation in Chinese. Some Chinese punctuation is used in the same way as it is in English/the West, however some is unique to Chinese. Do you use question marks in Chinese? Yes, question marks are used in Chinese and their usage is very similar to that in the West.

Is punctuation part of fluency? ›

Fluency is the ability to read smoothly and automatically with accuracy, expression, and attention to punctuation.

What is punctuation in Greek? ›

28. The Greek uses the comma and period as in English. It also has a colon, ( · ) a point above the line, which is equivalent to the English colon and semicolon. The mark of interrogation is ( ; ), it is the same as the English semicolon.

What is the Latin meaning of punctuation? ›

Borrowed from Medieval Latin punctuātiō (“a marking with points, a writing, agreement”), from punctuō (“to mark with points, settle”).

What is the meaning of the word punctuate? ›

: to mark or divide (written matter) with punctuation marks. : to break into or interrupt at intervals. the steady click of her needles punctuated the silence Edith Wharton. 3.

Did the ancient Greeks use punctuation? ›

Ancient Greeks did not use to indicate punctuation in their texts, apart from very exceptional cases; nor did they use to separate words with spaces, as we do.

Was there punctuation in Ancient Greek? ›

Punctuation. Ancient Greek is generally punctuated in texts for the reader's convenience. Full stops and commas are used in roughly the same way as English. However, there is no exclamation mark, and the Greek question mark is used—it looks like a semicolon ( ; ).

What is French punctuation called? ›

Punctuation in French is almost the same word as in English: it's “la ponctuation”.

How did Romans punctuate? ›

Most Latin documents, regardless of type, had very little in the way of punctuation (p. 22). Archaic Latin. Written mostly in scriptio continua (i.e. often no word breaks or punctuation between words); sometimes, interpuncts were used between words (including two or three vertical interpuncts).

What is the original meaning of semicolon? ›

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks.

What is the base word of punctuation? ›

Updated on February 25, 2020. Punctuation is the set of marks used to regulate texts and clarify their meanings, mainly by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses. The word comes from the Latin word punctuare meaning "making a point."

Why do we punctuate? ›

Punctuation fills our writing with silent intonation. We pause, stop, emphasize, or question using a comma, a period, an exclamation point or a question mark. Correct punctuation adds clarity and precision to writing; it allows the writer to stop, pause, or give emphasis to certain parts of the sentence.

Does punctuation mean emphasize? ›

to give emphasis or force to; emphasize; underline. verb (used without object), punc·tu·at·ed, punc·tu·at·ing. to insert or use marks of punctuation.

How old is the oldest text in the Bible? ›

Earliest extant manuscripts

The earliest manuscript of a New Testament text is a business-card-sized fragment from the Gospel of John, Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which may be as early as the first half of the 2nd century.


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