This year, I got a little obsessed with punctuation.
I’m an English teacher, so you might figure, “That’s your job.” Yet, although I instruct 5th graders on the proper use of grammar and mechanics, I’ve actually never been one of those people who rants about punctuation usage on social media. It was, indeed, social media that caused me to become obsessed with punctuation, but not in the way you might think. One of my Facebook friends was upset about the fact that few people (particularly young people) insert periods at the end of their texts.
I’ll admit, I’m not that big of a stickler outside the classroom. When it comes to texts, I’m just grateful that the person bothered to punctuate at all. Have you seen one of those puzzling messages that not only excludes punctuation, but capital letters as well? No fun, right? I look at punctuation as an aid in communications, not as a sacred tradition, so I really don’t pay attention to the period at the end of texts. If the person stopped writing, I assume the text is over.
Yet, after reading my friend’s rant about young people and their flagrant omission of periods at the end of texts, I began to think about the “tradition” of punctuation. How old is this tradition? Who started using all of those little marks that help us know when to pause, stop, and raise our voice? So I began my quest to find out.
Turns out that it all started with a man named Aristophanes who ran the library in the Hellenic city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was frustrated because the scrolls in the ancient library were difficult to read. Allofthewordsrantogether, which was a common practice in ancient Greece, according to Keith Houston, author of “Shady Characters, The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.” Aristophanes suggested that readers relieve the unbroken stream of text with dots aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (·) of each line. He called them commas, colons, and periodos. This was not quite punctuation as we know it but, according to Houston, the seed had been planted.
The Romans later abandoned Aristophanes’ system of dots. Their famous orators believed that the rhythm of the speech should determine the pauses. After the Western portion of the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century, the emerging Christian religion brought back punctuation to Europe. Early monks spent inordinate amounts of time and energy copying Christian texts, decorating the pages with swirly letters, paragraph marks, and intricate drawings. An archbishop in the 7th century, Isidore of Seville, brought back Aristophanes’ system of dots. Irish and Scottish monks, who were tired of trying to make sense of Latin words that ran together, put spaces between words, and Charlemagne ordered his monks to create a system of letters we now know as lower-case.
During the Renaissance, the printing press arrived on the scene, and Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible set the standard for punctuation use. Over the next 50 years, the symbols barely changed. The slash dropped and took on its old Greek name, comma, which means “little knife.” The exclamation mark, based on a Greek symbol for joy, Io, and the question mark, derived from the Latin symbol for “question,” which resembles the Arabic number 2, joined Arisophanes’ periodo and became standard.
Now, with the invention of computers, punctuation might be set for another evolution. Will the future include emojis? It’s difficult to say. However, after reading Houston’s work, it is clear that technology and necessity has always driven punctuation usages. It might indeed be up to modern writers — particularly those pioneering young people — to decide the future!
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