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Is Punctuation Dying? A Short History of the Period and Its Peers

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Writing hasn't always included punctuation. In fact, for a while, most writing didn't even include spaces.

Writing hasn't always included punctuation. In fact, for a while, most writing didn't even include spaces.

We’ve all received communications like “Your my friend” or “Its unmistakable.” Perhaps, you’ve even sent something similar. Of course, we understand what is being written, so does it really matter that the punctuation has gone awry?

When Was Punctuation Created?

There exists an inscribed Middle Eastern stone known as the Mesha Stele that dates from about 840 BCE. Experts say it shows evidence of the first use of punctuation. Something more closely approaching punctuation as we know it today was used by Greek playwrights in the fifth century BCE. Marks were inserted into the text to tell actors when to pause, although it seems any thespian worth the price of admission would know that already.

That experiment faded with the ancient Greek civilization, and it wasn’t until Christianity spread throughout Europe that punctuation reappeared. Isidore of Seville placed dots in text to indicate a short, medium, or long pauses. That was in the seventh century, a time when spacesbetweenwordswerestillnotused.

Over time, Isidore’s dots became more sophisticated, and commas, colons, full-stop/periods, and semi-colons started to appear. Question marks, exclamation marks, and dashes soon followed.

By the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible quite literally cast punctuation marks in metal. As the BBC notes, “After that the evolution of punctuation marks stopped dead, stymied by the standardisation imposed by the printing press.”

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible required punctuation marks to be cast in metal for printing.

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible required punctuation marks to be cast in metal for printing.

Threatened Punctuation Marks

Punctuation is integral to correct grammar. But, is proper grammar vital? Good grammar displays a disciplined approach to discourse and the exchange of ideas. On the other hand, it shows a slavish adherence to old rules that no longer apply as language evolves.

The apostrophe is currently the punctuation mark most in danger of getting the old heave-ho. Its misuse is legion, but we know what someone means when they write isnt or shouldnt even if they cause auto-correct to throw a hissy fit. But cant can mean cannot or to speak hypocritically. Of course, context in a sentence will determine which is intended by the writer.

Do we really need the question mark? From the phrasing of a sentence, we know whether it’s a question or not. It’s the same with the exclamation mark. We know that when Sylvester of Looney Tunes fame says “Suffering succotash,” he’s making an exclamation. We don’t have to be clobbered over the head with a vertical line and a dot.

A Farewell to the Comma

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English at Columbia University. In 2014, he poked a stick into a linguistic hornet’s nest when he suggested bumping off the comma. He said we “could take [the commas out of] a great deal of modern American texts and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all.”

Predictably, there was a backlash. Without commas, you might come across a sentence like “I find inspiration in cooking my family and my cat.” Okay, you understand I’m not a cannibal, but . . .

A misplaced or omitted comma in a legal brief can and has left litigants on the losing end with hefty bills to pay. Such a punctuation lapse cost the Oakhurst Dairy in Maine $5 million in a dispute with its drivers in 2018.

At the University of Michigan, English professor and language historian Anne Curzan says the comma is vanishing from text messages and e-mails. She says these communications in forums and the like are meant to be informal, and punctuation marks like commas introduce formality.

Matthew J.X. Malady (Slate) adds that the use of commas and their cousins “could signal that you’re an old fogey. And it may get you made fun of by your kids.” Lynne Truss disagrees, and vehemently so. Her 2003 book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, was a “zero tolerance approach to punctuation.” It was lighthearted, but it stood in staunch defence of the need for correct punctuation.

A comma (or lack thereof) can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically.

A comma (or lack thereof) can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically.

Whither Goes the Semicolon?

Venetian Aldus Manutius was a 15th-century scholar and printer. He invented the semicolon to allow for dramatic pauses in the reading of the poetry of Pietro Bembo. It’s come down to us as a way of linking independent clauses that could stand alone but that work better as a single sentence.

Grammarly gives us an example: “Martha has gone to the library; Andrew has gone to play soccer.” The sentence flows better with a semicolon, but its use can cause harsh words to be bandied about among writing stylists.

Among the defenders of the semicolon is Abraham Lincoln, who wrote that “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule. With me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say that I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”

This semicolon seems a bit lost . . .

This semicolon seems a bit lost . . .

Others, such as Ernest Hemingway, avoided the dot-and-comma combination on the grounds that it was too feminine (as though that is a bad thing). Writer Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like semicolons. He called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Author Edward Abbey was a bit more graphic, referring to semicolons as a “storm of flyshit on the typescript.”

Pundits have been writing the obituary for the semicolon since at least the 1970s, but it’s still hanging in there. In 2012, readers of the Swedish language journal Språktidningen were asked to choose their favourite punctuation mark; the semicolon was at the head of the pack by a wide margin.

Certainly, some punctuation marks have arrived at the emergency department, limping a little and perhaps a little bloodied, but they are a long way from being admitted to the intensive care unit to be put on life support.

Bonus Factoids

  • During the Russian Revolution of 1905, typesetters went on strike, demanding the right to get paid for setting punctuation marks in addition to letters.
  • Judge James Clark occasionally read punctuation aloud in his Baltimore courtroom in the 1950s. He would sometimes tell a convicted person, “I am sentencing you to a prison term of ten years, semicolon.” During the pause, the poor sap in the prisoner’s box had a second or two to absorb the quaking feeling of a long stretch behind bars. Judge Clark would then continue “Semicolon, sentence suspended.” He became known as the semicolon judge.
  • Henry Denham was a printer in England in the 16th century. He thought readers needed a punctuation mark to indicate a rhetorical question. So, he gave the world the backward question mark. It didn’t catch on.

Sources

  • “Q&A: When Were Punctuation Marks First Used?” History Extra, April 1, 2013.
  • “The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.” Keith Houston, BBC Culture, September 2, 2015.
  • “Will We Use Commas in the Future?” Matthew J.X. Malady, Slate, January 28, 2014.
  • “9 Things You Didn’t Know About the Semicolon.” Cecelia Watson, Publishers Weekly, July 19, 2019.
  • “A History of Punctuation.” Florence Hazrat, Aeon, September 3, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 17, 2020:

its bin korrected. So their.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 17, 2020:

I noticed it but wasn’t going to say anything lol. I am glad Ann did.

Ann Carr from SW England on October 17, 2020:

I did think it might be a test!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 17, 2020:

Thanks to everyone and especially Ann for pointing out the error. I could try to pretend it was a deliberate mistake to see who is paying attention but that's not going to fool anyone. It highlights the rule that if you write about grammar it is an immutable fact that somewhere you will insert a howler.

Ann Carr from SW England on October 17, 2020:

I admit the semi-colon is one that is questionable, though I use it often. I defend the apostrophe though, specifically for meaning and correct communication. I'm a grandma and I don't want to be eaten.

Great hub!

By the way, what's wrong with 'You're my friend.'? (first line)

Ann

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 16, 2020:

This was a good read, Rupert. I am no expert with punctuation, but Grammarly is my friend. Commas, semi-colons etc may be be getting used less often but still have a an important place in “real” writing.

Hertha David from Windhoek, Namibia on October 16, 2020:

I think punctuation is dying. In my country, learners in grade 8 still cannot use proper punctuations and I don't know if we can blame technology that they use when they text or maybe they just lazy to apply the knowledge.

Great article.

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on October 16, 2020:

Hi Rupert, what an interesting article and you have a lovely writing style. I think punctuation is necessary for a literary sense but in everyday emails, not so much. I'm not a fan of the semi-colon especially as Microsoft Word keeps suggesting it when I'm drafting my novels. It's annoying!

Michael Rivers from North Carolina on October 16, 2020:

Punctuation isn't so much dying as it is simply adapting to recent means of communication. You still have to end your sentences with a period in most cases.