Are you manic about misplaced commas? Apoplectic over rogue apostrophes? Distressed by the disappearing question mark?

You don’t have to be an outspoken member of the punctuation police to know the significance those swirls, curls, dots and dashes play in every reader and writer’s life. But in this digital-infused age, many of those markers have been turned on their little charcoal heads.

Question mark made from daisy flowers

As we observe National Punctuation Day on Saturday, it might be helpful to look back at the genesis of the punctuation playbook – and help us navigate a new word order of breathless texts and tweets, one in which markers are MIA or carry a different meaning.

Ancient text in many cultures featured logograms that represented a word or a phrase. There was no need for spacing and punctuation because the meaning of the symbol was self-contained. When early alphabetic writing took root, there was no upper or lower case, no pauses. Just an endless train of text that could be difficult to digest.

Enter Aristophanes of Byzantium, a Greek literary critic, grammarian and chief librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 BC. Many historians say he created the first forms of punctuation: single dots to help readers take a break.

For a short passage a dot was placed at midlevel in the script; for a longer passage a dot was placed at the bottom; for a very long passage the dot was placed near the top.

These little dots, which would one day become the comma, colon and period, were introduced as a way to help comprehension when text was read out loud – not the written word.

As Christianity spread across Europe a few centuries later, comprehension of text took on added importance. Word of mouth was no longer sufficient to pass along religious teachings and traditions. Christian writers in the 6th and 7th centuries saw the need for using symbols in text to preserve the meaning of their words.

The invention of movable type marked another milestone for punctuation. In 1476, William Caxton, a merchant, diplomat and writer, became the first English retailer of printed books. He took punctuation to a new level by introducing three marks: the stroke or slash  for marking word groups, the colon for marking specific pauses and the period for marking ends of sentences and short “stops.”

In the late 1400s, Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and his grandson, Aldo Manutius the Younger, introduced a standardised system of punctuation by ending a sentence with the colon or a “full stop.” The duo also are credited with creating the look of the modern comma, using parentheses and inventing the semicolon.

And perhaps most key, the younger Manutius published a book in 1566 explaining the use of the comma, colon and period as well as other punctuation – and stating that the marks were needed to ensure accuracy of text.

Fast forward 500 or so years.

In many ways, the invention of the printing press froze punctuation in time. The symbols on our keyboards today are more or less the same as they were centuries earlier. But what has changed is the way punctuation is used (or not used) and the message it delivers on our devices.

 

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