A history of the comma and other punctuation marks

A history of the comma and other punctuation marks

Giovanni Blandino Published on 5/3/2021

The comma, colon, semicolon, full stop, exclamation mark, question mark… we often take for granted the punctuation marks that we use every day to ensure what we write is comprehensible. We often forget that these little symbols exist, yet without them, reading and writing would be a more complicated affair, and we’d undoubtedly understand one another less.

The origin of these marks is somewhat of a mystery. We know that the ancient Romans and Greeks preferred not to use them and that, over the centuries, they have taken various guises. But what’s certain is that, with the invention of printing and the growth of the publishing industry, it became necessary to bring some sort of order to these marks, many of which we still use today for punctuation.

We take a closer look at the weird and wonderful history of some of the most commonly used punctuation.

The ancient world didn’t use punctuation marks

We’re in Rome, in front of a masterpiece of ancient Roman sculpture: Trajan’s Column. The monument celebrating the Roman Emperor Trajan’s conquest of Dacia is not just famous for its reliefs depicting the epic Dacian Wars, but also for the beautiful characters used to inscribe its epigraph. It’s no coincidence that almost two millennia later, in 1989, this lettering inspired the design of the Trajan font.

The inscription on Trajan’s Column

Looking at the writing, one thing is immediately obvious: there is no punctuation. There are no paragraphs. There are just small dots separating one word from another. That’s right: the authors of classical antiquity didn’t use punctuation marks. Or rather, every so often, someone would insert new marks to indicate the beginning of a new idea, or the end of a paragraph, or a pause; but there was no agreed, standardised system, nor was it felt that one was needed.

Punctuation was probably considered superfluous: the logical relationships between the sentences, pauses and intonation could have been deduced from the context and grammar, especially in texts written to be read aloud.

So, when did the need to add these new signs to text become necessary?

The Middle Ages: when the comma was a slash

One of the first to lament the lack of punctuation marks was Aristophanes of Byzantium, a Hellenistic Greek philologist and grammarian who lived in the 2nd century BC. It was for this reason that he introduced a punctuation system to separate verses and indicate the length of pause required when a text was read aloud. The system involved placing a dot in three different positions (at the bottom, middle and top of each line. These were called the comma, colon and periodus respectively). The shortest pause – the comma – was the dot positioned at the bottom of the line, which, as you may have guessed, was the precursor of the modern punctuation mark of the same name.

A manuscript from The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

In the Middle Ages, this system of marks continued to be used, along with many others. Indeed, the pause typically signalled by a comma was also indicated by a slash (/).

In the same way, the modern colon (:) was at times used as it is today, while at others it signalled a pause longer than that marked by a comma. On the other hand, the question mark was placed in the margins of the text with a sort of arrow (>).

Confusion reigned, sometimes even within a single text. For example, in writing The Decameron, the 14th-century Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio signalled a comma with both the customary (for the time) slash (/) and with the modern comma (,).

The 16th century: printing and publishing bring some order to punctuation

While the origins of punctuation are in some ways mysterious and fuzzy, we know for certain who started to put things in order and when. It was Italian linguist Pietro Bembo and Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius at the turn of the 16th century.

Manutius is considered one of the most important publishers of all time. It was his quest for practicality and affordability that gave the printing and publishing world key inventions like italic typefaces and affordable, pocket-sized books (we’ve talked about him before in our blog). And to these inventions we must also add the standardisation of punctuation.

A page from De Aetna, printed by Aldus Manutius, with the first standardised punctuation.

It was in the 1496 octavo edition of De Aetna – a proto-scientific treatise recounting a trip to the summit of Mount Etna – that the first modern commas, semicolons, apostrophes and accents appeared, used in a very similar way to today, five centuries later.

And it was all because books printed with movable type needed clear and standardised punctuation marks. So, together, Manutius and Bembo reviewed all the different punctuation signs used at the time, decided which to keep and what meaning they should have. Modern punctuation was born.

Experiments in punctuation

Experimentation and evolution in the world of punctuation didn’t stop with Bembo and Manutius. The roles of the comma, full stop, semicolon and other marks had to be gradually defined, and fierce debates still rage today over their use.

Symbols like the exclamation mark took a good while to catch on and become accepted punctuation. Appearing for the first time in the 14th century, it struggled to establish a separate meaning for itself from the question mark until the 19th century: up to that point, they were often used interchangeably.

The interrobang, invented by advertising executive Martin K. Speckter in 1962

Also in the 19th century was Charles Fourier’s experiment that proposed systemising punctuation with 20 different marks, including four types of comma, which was supposed to allow every nuance of language to be expressed. As you can imagine, his system wasn’t a success.

A similar fate befell the interrobang, invented by advertising executive Martin K. Speckter in 1962 and intended to replace “?!” as an indication of surprise or incredulity. After modest initial success – a key for the symbol was included on some typewriters – the poor interrobang sank into obscurity.