Sep 242015


Today is National Punctuation Day in the United States. The celebration was initiated by Jeff Rubin in 2004 with the aim of promoting the correct usage of punctuation. Rubin encourages appreciators of correct punctuation and spelling to send in pictures of errors spotted in everyday life.

punct7 punct6

I’m afraid I may go hog wild on this topic, but I’ll try to reign in my enthusiasm. Let’s start with some basics. Punctuation has evolved over the course of written language development. Its main purpose is to give guidance to readers concerning the meaning of written passages in the absence of vocal cues such as inflection, intonation, and pauses. Punctuation includes the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices which assist the reader, not only in correctly articulating the written word, but also in clearing up ambiguity. For example, “woman, without her man, is nothing” versus “woman: without her, man is nothing” are diametrically opposite in meaning. In spoken language the difference is clear by judicious use of pauses. In written form the punctuation is essential for clarity.


The first writing systems were either logographic or syllabic—for example, Chinese and Maya script—which do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single character or glyph, so spacing does not help much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts.


In ancient Europe most texts were written in scriptura continua, that is without any separation between words. However, the Greeks began sporadically using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots—usually two (dicolon) or three (tricolon)—in around the 5th century BCE as an aid in the oral delivery of texts. Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama. This essentially helped the play’s cast to know when to pause. After 200 BCE, the Greeks used a system (called théseis) of a single dot (punctus) placed at varying heights to mark up speeches at rhetorical divisions:

hypostigmḗ – a low punctus on the baseline to mark off a komma (unit smaller than a clause);

stigmḕ mésē – a punctus at midheight to mark off a clause (kōlon); and

stigmḕ teleía – a high punctus to mark off a sentence (periodos).

Punctuation developed dramatically in the Middle Ages when large numbers of copies of the Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud, so the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks (diple, paragraphos, simplex ductus), and an early version of initial capitals (litterae notabiliores). In the 7th to 8th centuries Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes, whose native languages were not derived from Latin, added more visual cues to render texts more intelligible. Irish scribes also introduced the practice of word separation.


From the invention of movable type in Europe in the 1450s the amount of printed material and a readership for it began to increase. The rise of printing in the 15th century meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently needed. The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has been attributed to the Venetian printers Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They have been credited with popularizing the practice of ending sentences with a colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses, and creating the modern comma. In 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger stated that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax.

So there you have it in brief. That’s how the publishing world landed up with editors and style manuals, and a raft of rules which I, and many others, spend a lifetime breaking, intentionally and unintentionally. I’m not exactly a stickler, as long time readers of this blog will acknowledge, but I have my moments of pedantry. Misuse of the apostrophe of possession makes me cringe, but it is the misuse of spacing that drives me mental. “Everyday” and “every day” have different meanings !!

Perhaps the most noted use of the need for proper punctuation is the following sentence presented to you here, unpunctuated, as a puzzle. How would you punctuate it to make sense of it?

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.

The sentence refers to two students, James and John, who had been required in an English test to describe a man who, in the past, had suffered from a cold. John wrote “The man had a cold,” which the teacher marked as incorrect, while James wrote the correct “The man had had a cold.” Since James’s answer was right, it had had a better effect on the teacher. Hence:

James, while John had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.

OK, you can take a moment. If you say it out loud, you will see how vocal stress, intonation, and pauses make sense of the string of “hads.”

What follows may cause WordPress to go nuts – and I along with it. Rare, innovative, and obsolete punctuation marks are not always supported by standard computer fonts. So I may have to resort to some fancy foot work.

For rare or obsolete punctuation I give the fleuron as an example. The fleuron is one of the oldest typographic ornaments. In early Greek and Latin texts, the fleuron (or hedera) was used as an inline character to divide paragraphs, in similar manner to the pilcrow (look it up!). It can also be used to fill the whitespace that results from the indentation of the first line of a paragraph, on a line by itself to divide paragraphs in a stylized way, to divide lists, or for pure ornamentation. Four fleurons are included in the Unicode dingbats block: U+2740 ❀ white florette (HTML ❀), U+2741 ❁ eight petalled outlined black florette (HTML ❁), U+2766 ❦ floral heart (HTML ❦), and U+2767 ❧ rotated floral heart bullet (HTML ❧).

Written English lacks a standard way to mark irony, and several forms of punctuation have been proposed. Among the oldest and most frequently attested are the percontation point proposed by English printer Henry Denham in the 1580s, and the irony mark, used by Marcellin Jobard and French poet Alcanter de Brahm during the 19th century. Both marks take the form of a reversed (i.e. mirrored) question mark.


Rhetorical questions in some informal situations can use a bracketed question mark, e.g. “Oh, really[?]”. The equivalent for an ironic or sarcastic statement would be a bracketed exclamation mark, e.g. “Oh, really[!]”. Subtitles, such as in Teletext, sometimes use an exclamation mark within brackets or parentheses to mark sarcasm.

It is common in online conversation among computer specialists to use an XML closing tag: </sarcasm>. The tag is often written only after the sarcasm so as to momentarily trick the reader before admitting the joke. Another example is the use of bracketed text with the symbol for the element iron (<Fe> and </Fe>) to denote irony. Commonly used on social news-based sites is a single /s, placed at the end of a comment to indicate a sarcastic tone for the preceding text. Typing in all-capital letters, and emoticons such as “rolling eyes,” “:>” and “:P” are often used nowadays, particularly in instant messaging.

The interrobang, also known as the interabang, ‽ (often represented by ?! or !?), is a nonstandard punctuation mark used in various written languages and intended to combine the functions of the question mark (also called the “interrogative point”) and the exclamation mark or exclamation point (known in printers’ and programmers’ jargon as the “bang”). The glyph is a superimposition of these two marks.

A sentence ending with an interrobang asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question.

For example:

Say what‽

She’s pregnant‽

In informal English, the same inflection is usually notated by ending a sentence with first a question mark and then an exclamation mark, or vice versa.

I tend to be rather freewheeling in my use of punctuation, to the endless frustration of my editors. My commonest habit (somewhat standard) is to use three periods to mark a trailing off – for example, “with love . . .” or “to be continued . . .” I pretty well always use two exclamation marks separated from the text by a space to indicate surprise or disbelief because computer fonts these days are not always clear.


Just to make a point, here’s my recipe for cock-a-leekie soup, reprinted without spacing or punctuation as it might have appeared 700 years ago:



Enjoy !!

[My spellchecker went crazy.]