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Punctuation Development

How did punctuation affect reading?

Old Punctuation

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines punctuation as “the act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs into written matter to clarify the meaning and separate structural units”. Parkes (1992) describes punctuation as “an essential component of the written language “ whose primary function is “to resolve structural uncertainties in a text” (Parkes, 1992, p.10).  In his review of the history of punctuation, Parkes (1992) writes that during the first century, Latin manuscripts were “separated by interpuncts” (Parkes, 1992), a short-lived practice that was replaced with scriptura continua by the end of the first century.  The pre-history of punctuation has its foundation on the process of praelectio – a technique that involves marking text by the “Grammaticus” that helps the reader to follow words more easily.  Parkes (1992) explains the challenge of the function of punctuation by pointing out the fact that there are numerous errors in the copy of Livy’s history of Rome “Codex Puteaneus” – errors that can be attributed to the challenge of determining or judging where to separate words” (Parkes, 1992, p.10).

The Latin language, although foreign to the Celtic and Germanic peoples in the West, continued to remain the language of the Bible (Parkes,1992) and it was the only means for anyone to achieve the spiritual experience of the Christian faith so creating a way to simplify reading it became important. One of the advantages of Latin, however, was the existence of some pre-defined linguistic symbols that made word separation and text marking easier. A case in point described by Parkes (1992) is the phrase “scriptum est”, which is used to introduce a quotation.  

According to Parkes (1992), the origin of punctuation can be traced back to the 6th century – a period marked by the tendency to view writing as an activity that transmits information “directly to the mind, through the eye” (Parkes, 1992, p.11).  Parkes’ review of the history of punctuation shows that during the barbarian occupations of the sixth century and the decline of the Roman Empire which impacted economical, grammatical and cultural heritage areas, a strong movement to preserve “citizenry” and “cultural heritage” became prevalent (Parkes, 1992).  Some of the most notable events of that era that influenced the development of punctuation are connected with the threat to the disappearance of the intellectual traditions established by previous generations and the threat of Christianity to the pagan cultures (Parkes, 1992).  Moreover, a growing concern about the quality of the texts expressed by both professional scholars and individual readers prompted them to make corrections and annotations on their own copies of the old Latin texts. Those efforts led to subsequent subscriptions that  focused on “the insertion of punctuation marks as a guide to the interpretation of a text to ensure that it was properly understood and thus it would preserve its integrity” (Parkes,1992, p.13).


Old Manuscript

Old Manuscript

 Once the Bible was “intoned in church” (Parkes, 1992), the importance of punctuation became paramount to conveying a clear message. St. Augustine was well aware of appropriate pausing as a means of “enhancing the meaningfulness” of the Bible.  As noted by Parkes (1992), St. Augustine is also credited with introducing the idea of text layout to indicate the beginning and the end of “capitula” or periodi” (Parkes, 1992, p.15). Marking methods that had previously been used to indicate pausing for the benefit of inexperienced readers, assumed a new status and led to the production of codices distincti in the fifth and sixth centuries. Two of the earliest codices to survive were “Codex Mediceus” in which Asterius used a punctuation system very similar to that introduced by Donatus, the fourth-century grammarian.  The other one, “Codex Amiatinus” – the earliest complete Bible to survive, had Psalms laid out per commata which means that “each new verse and each of its constituent parts begins on a new line close up the margins” (Parkes, 1992, p.16).  Later on, eighth century scribes introduced new word separation to the copy of “Codex Amiatinus” – evidence that illustrates the role of punctuation in helping not only the transmission and preservation of information, but also providing the opportunity for future generations to contribute through authorship by adding their own understanding and interpretation.  


The focus of modern punctuation builds on the early systems, reflecting the need to clarify the meaning but expanding on the connection between the unit structures.  Such a practice can be described as “pausing for meaning and not for breath”.  It developed primarily during the first generations of the printing press. The first printer of books in English, William Caxton (1474), used only three punctuation marks: the stroke (/) to mark word groups, the colon (:) to indicate syntactic pauses, and the period (.) for the ends of sentences and brief pauses. This punctuation system was codified in the eighteenth century. 
As illustrated in the table below, the punctuation symbols underwent major changes over the centuries due to the need to easily distinguish between them in order to facilitate the reading process.  Parkes (1992) lists about five different forms and functions of the initial “punctus” which developed gradually into the existing modern punctuation marks.


Punctuation Marks

In Ancient Latin


. and  · Punctus
Originally placed in the middle of a sentence, the punctus is the foundation of our modern “period.”
. Period
Used at the end of a complete statement or sentence
Punctus elevatus (looks like an inverted semicolon). Used to indicate a pause at the end or the middle of a sentence (between twelfth to the fifteenth century) ; Semi-colon Used instead of “and”
Colon (:) Initially used during fourteenth century to indicate a full or central pause  : Colon
Used to start a list or a statement
Punctus interrogativus
Looks like a just a wavy above a period. First appeared in the eighth century to indicate the end of a question (through rising intonation).
? Question Mark
Used at the end of a question.
Virgula suspensiva (/): Used during the seventeenth century to indicate short pauses.  , Comma
Used to separate groups of words or indicate a pause within a sentence.
)Parenthesis or brackets( 
Used to indicate an additional comment. Originally presented in the fifteenth century, with curved parantheses in opposite directions and accompanied by the underlining word(s) between those parenthesis
( ) Parenthesis
Used to make a comment within a sentence.
Exclamation Mark was first introduced during the seventeenth century ! Exclamation Mark
Used to indicate strong feelings
Quotation Mark
In medieval manuscripts, underlining was sometimes used to indicate direct speech or quotation
“ ” Quotation Mark
Used for direct speech



As Professor Greg Turko explains, a generally accepted punctuation system contributed to making reading more accessible and portable.  Parkes (1992) noted that previously, readers in ancient Rome were “mostly a social elite” (Parkes, 1992, p.9) with a “reserved role” to interpret the text to the masses as they read since the marking of the pauses required their “literary judgment” (Parkes, 1992, p.9).  The need to reflect the changes related to historical, social and cultural conditions and changing demands of the readers to have more access and control over the written word ultimately led to a “generally accepted repertory of  punctuation” (Parkes, 1992, p. 10).

Punctuation contributed to the development of silent reading by clarifying meaning. Different readers, “authors” through different times could add or clarify their intended meaning to reflect the individual understanding and the social and cultural context. Punctuation also helped to preserve and transmit information and knowledge to future generations.



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