A short history of punctuation (and why it’s an essential part of communication)

A short history of punctuation

The tiny dots and dashes sprinkled throughout every piece of writing we read may at first seem trivial, but we often underestimate how vital punctuation is to giving words their intended meaning and communicating effectively. The example often cited to demonstrate this point is “the panda eats, shoots and leaves”. Remove the comma and the sentence changes from sinister to the more informative, “the panda eats shoots and leaves”.

Punctuation is viewed as something necessary for reading comprehension, but this wasn’t always the case. Humans recorded their actions and thoughts in writing long before the invention of punctuation. So how could they possibly decipher the meaning of written documents that provided no indication of where one phrase ended and another began? The answer is actually quite simple: writing simply wasn’t as important back then.

In the past, more emphasis was placed on spoken word. This was especially true in Ancient Greece and Rome where politics centered on verbal debates. It was not until the third century BC that Aristophanes, a librarian living in Alexandria, suggested what would become the first set of punctuation marks. The comma, colon, and periodos were represented by a dot of ink in the middle, bottom, or top of a line respectively. Each mark indicated a different length of pause and was a great aid to readers who, in those days, had to wade through texts multiple times before even hoping to grasp their meaning.

The Bible featured one of the first uses of punctuation

The Bible featured one of the first uses of punctuation

Marks such as these soon became popular with orators and actors, who used them as speaking cues to improve their speeches or to give better performances. The popularity of punctuation was in flux over the years that followed, though, with some choosing to use Aristophanes’ rules where others rejected them. The copying and distribution of the Christian Bible was punctuation’s own saving grace. Punctuation marks were included to help people read the Bible aloud, and since the book was widely distributed across a large geographic area, the marks became normalized and were more regularly incorporated in written works.

Like any aspect of language, punctuation has evolved over time. Languages that originally did not include any form of punctuation, such as Arabic and Urdu, began to include these markings due to Western influence. The usage and appearance of punctuation continues to evolve. At one point, the interrobang, though short-lived, was introduced to express exclamation and question. French author Hervé Basin made the argument to include six new punctuation marks, including the point d’ironie (irony point), the point d’amour (love point), the point de conviction (certitude point), the point d’autorité (authority point), the point d’acclamation (acclamation point), and the point de doute (doubt point) in an attempt to approximate the full spoken meaning of language in writing. Today, some would say that emojis could be classified as a new form of punctuation, in the sense that they follow their own set of grammatical rules and help add meaning.

Variance in punctuation is not limited to time, but is also quite noticeable across geographic and linguistic boundaries. Different languages have unique punctuation marks they use to convey a specific meaning. For example, Spanish and Catalan use inverted question marks and exclamation points at the beginning of sentences to clarify the tone of the sentence. The Armenian language uses a colon to represent a full-stop where English would use a period. In Arabic, Urdu, and Persian, which are all written from right to left, reversed question marks and commas are used. Japanese has round, unfilled periods.

The diversity of punctuation across languages is especially relevant in the context of translation. Punctuation has the power to give the same words written in the same order completely different meanings (like the panda sentence from before).

Punctuation mishaps

Punctuation can be the defining factor in whether or not you give your dear old grandmother a heart attack.

Therefore, it becomes incredibly important for the translator to incorporate punctuation effectively in order to convey the intended meaning of the translated work.  Avoiding this miscommunication when translating requires doing the necessary research to determine the punctuation differences between the source language and the target language. 

Far from being negligible marks placed behind letters and words, punctuation is an integral part of language. Punctuation, in the context of a sentence, becomes a unit of meaning without which we simply wouldn’t be able to grasp the true meaning as the writer intended. In the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “the writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood.”

Concerned your punctuation isn’t quite up to scratch? Let VeraContent’s dedicated proofreading team take a look at your content before you give the wrong impression.

Alexandra Vietor
Alexandra Vietor studies anything and everything that happens to catch her interest at the time, although she is working towards a degree in anthropology with a minor in French. She enjoys small-town sunsets, long hikes, and breakfast foods at all times of the day.
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