Punctuation past and present: A new word order

 Punctuation past and present: A new word order

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 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 representing a word or a phrase. There was no need for spacing and punctuation because the purpose 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 drop was placed at midlevel in the script; for a longer ride, a decrease was placed at the bottom; for a very long ride, the decline was placed near the top of My Update Star.



These little dots, which would one day become the comma, colon, and period, were introduced to help comprehension when the text was read aloud – not the written word. As Christianity spread across Europe a few centuries later, understanding text became important. Word of mouth was insufficient to pass along religious teachings and traditions. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Christian writers saw the need for using symbols in the 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 keeping specific pauses, and the period for maintaining 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 is also credited with creating the look of the modern comma, using parentheses and inventing the semicolon.

Perhaps most key, the younger Manutius published a book in 1566 explaining the use of the comma, colon, period, and other punctuation – and stating that the marks were needed to ensure the accuracy of the text. Fast forward 500 or so years. In many ways, the invention of the printing press froze punctuation in time. Today’s symbols on our keyboards are more or less the same as they were centuries ago. But what has changed is how punctuation is used (or not used) and the message it delivers on our devices.

Dennis Bailey


Professional beer geek. Alcohol ninja. Social media scholar. Award-winning twitter fanatic. Writer. Basketball fan, mother of 2, audiophile, Saul Bass fan and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Producing at the sweet spot between simplicity and purpose to create strong, lasting and remarkable design. I'm a designer and this is my work.