Are you manic about misplaced Being Mad 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.
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 form 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 My Update Star.
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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 standardized system of punctuation by ending a sentence with the colon or a “full stop.” The duo also is 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 and other punctuation – and stating that the marks were needed to ensure accuracy of the 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.