Have you ever wondered who invented the question mark? What prompted the invention of parentheses, em dashes, and exclamation marks? English scholar Florence Hazra explores questions like these in her studies regarding the history of punctuation. In an article for Aeon, Hazrat looks at why punctuation was first invented, and how it has evolved over centuries.
When Was Punctuation Invented?
You might think that punctuation was invented at the same time as writing, but that is not the case. Think about the two main functions of punctuation: the first is to signal the end of one thought (whether clause or sentence), and the second is to let the reader know how to interpret the sentence, signaling whether it is an emphatic statement (!) or a question (?). We do this automatically when speaking, and most of us probably aren’t thinking to ourselves, “insert comma as pause” when we do so! In the earliest days of recorded writing, readers relied on context cues to do the interpretive work that punctuation aids. Presumably in the earliest days of writing, people relied on speaking aloud what was written in order to fully understand the text.
It wasn’t until the 7th century that the world was introduced to the period, the common, and the colon through the ideas of Isidore of Seville. Isidore was a member of the clergy, and before long Irish monks began using his system of punctuation in their translation work. Hazrat explains how these punctuation marks transformed the experience of reading:
These changes attest to a shift in the perception of writing from record of speech to record of information. Meaning no longer needed to pass from eye to mind via voice and ear, but was directly – silently – apprehended.
As writing was better able to approximate speech, new ideas for punctuation were introduced. Hazart writes that “by the late Middle Ages, the comma, the colon and the full stop had established themselves. The exclamation and the question mark joined their ranks, attesting to a need for emotional emphasis and clarification of intonation.”
The period allowed people to easily note where one sentence ends and another begins. The comma and colon made it easier to separate clauses. But developments in punctuation were far from over. Hazart explains that “as writing needed to do more work in trade and political communication, more and more signs of punctuation were invented to facilitate faster and more accurate reading.” The next great revolution in punctuation occurred after the invention of the printing press. Hazart writes that “printers in Germany, France and Italy were not craftsmen only but often educated scholars instrumental in introducing and spreading the use and looks of punctuation marks. The superstar of European printer-intellectuals, the Venetian Aldus Manutius, invented the semicolon for the Italian poet Pietro Bembo’s dialogue De Aetna (1494), allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing.”
The Digital Revolution
One final fascinating era in Hazart’s account: the digital revolution. Our punctuations have taken on new functions, signaling emotions through emoticons: smiling 🙂 or winking 😉 or frowning 🙁 or grinning 😀 or playfully sticking one’s tongue out 😛 — How crazy is it that literally centuries after the punctuation marks we use regularly were created, we are still innovating and adding new meaning to our texts via these marks! All of this underscores the fact that punctuation usage is an ongoing dialogue. Who knows what new ideas we will come up with that can help us to communicate in writing with greater clarity, emotion, and rhetorical effect.
Have You Heard of Analytical Grammar?
Analytical Grammar is a middle and high school level curriculum that teaches grammar conceptually and sequentially. Analytical Grammar goes beyond memorization, equipping students to fully understand and apply the mechanics of usage, punctuation, and structure.