Marks of Civilisation: How Punctuation Shaped the Modern World
Making sense of this probably took you a while, depending on your familiarity with reading, and with reading English. Yet, this is precisely how people wrote and read for millennia. This “continual script” was current in classical Greece and Rome because writing was not understood as a separate manifestation of language, but merely as a record of speech. Since we don’t pause between words in speaking (only that we do, but so infinitesimally briefly that we don’t consciously notice), it didn’t occur to people to somehow mark the ends and beginnings of words. And anyway, reading and writing was the prerogative of educated people who had the skills and time to figure out grammar and tone.
Imagine now a few tiny squiggles of ink here and there, and you’d be able to unlock both grammar and tone with one view, regardless of your level of education. This is what happened in the Renaissance.
Around seven hundred years ago, the scholar and poet Alpoleio, in the small town of Urbisaglia in the west of Italy, was annoyed that writers and readers were making mistakes in punctuating and reading text out loud. He wrote a treatise in Latin on The Art of Punctuating, codifying the rules of the marks that had been around for some time, including the full stop, the comma, the colon, and the question mark for tone. Yet, this was not enough for Alpoleio: he was exasperated with readers turning an expressive sentence into a mere statement or question when reading it out loud. he invented a new mark to append ‘exclamatory or admirative sentences’ - the exclamation mark. Only that, surprisingly, he didn’t produce the sign itself, but rather put forward a mere verbal explanation of the shape. Alpoleio suggested a dot at the bottom of the line, and an apostrophe above that, dangling from the top of the line like a typographical earring.
It took another language-lover and punctuation fan to turn letters into form: half a century after Alpoleio’s punctuation guide, on the other side of Italy, in Florence, Coluccio Salutati made his mark on the world of writing by giving us the first ‘!’. In his 1399 De nobilitate legum et medicinae, the lawyer mock-quarrels with doctors who praise medicine above law as the most perfect discipline. ‘I earnestly urge you…doctors,’ Coluccio exclaims with teasing emotion, ‘please reply to me!’.
The exclamation mark had found its way from a description, to a shape, and - through the radically novel invention of the printing press with movable letters in the 1450s - would spread all across Europe and beyond. Any new practice takes time, of course, but two hundred years after Coluccio’s humorous debate, ‘!’ had a firm place within the repertoire of punctuation. Readers were finally able to know immediately what kind of sentence was in front of them, how to tune their voice when reading (whether aloud or in their heads), and what the author wanted them to feel.
Yet, ‘!’ was not the only punctuation mark that conquered the world of writing, and from then, all spheres of human activity: Coluccio also introduced brackets (or parentheses) in the same manuscript. He sectioned off matters that seemed additional to the main sentence through typographical crescents, open to the right and left. In fact, brackets were so important to him that he himself squeezed them between the words of the manuscript copied by his secretary. Coluccio was deeply attentive to the minutiae of his text, worrying about how it would be understood by future readers.
The invention of brackets was both new and not new. The stylistic device of the parenthesis (interrupting the current flow of thought for another and then returning again to the previous subject) had been around since antiquity. All Coluccio did was translate the practice into a visual form that belonged to writing, but that could not be confused with letters.
Brackets, just like exclamation marks and all other punctuation, help us make sense of sentences, where one starts and the other ends, what the relationship of the different parts within the sentence is, and how to tune our voice and emotions when reading. Punctuation also assists us in navigating the page as a whole, particularly when one includes white space like paragraphs, margins, and spaces between the words. Modern eye-tracking experiments have found that punctuation, like commas, helps us to process writing faster and more effectively. Those Renaissance punctuation fans were onto something.
Apart from ‘!’ and ( ), the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also saw the introduction of the semicolon for pauses that were between a colon and a full stop, the dash – a bolder kind of parenthesis – and the ellipsis or points of suspense, when you want to trail off…for whatever reason…maybe threatening, or implying, or being lost for words… By the middle of the seventeenth century, punctuation marks had mostly settled into the way we use them today.
Apart from emojis which are, perhaps, our inglorious contribution to the pantheon of punctuation (though we don’t yet know whether they’ll stick around), the 250 years between the 1350s and 1600 constitute the shining hour of writing and all its attendant phenomena, such as punctuation, the italic typeface, spacious and legible typefaces like the ancestors to Times New Roman, and the arrangement of text on the page. All of this increased legibility as well as the pace of reading, particularly in comparison to the crowded medieval page whose dense angular handwriting styles made reading a slow and laborious process of discerning letter from letter and word from word.
This concern with the design of the page and with a greater reader experience (just as website developers have today) was a hallmark of the humanist movement of the Renaissance that saw a devotion to all things language: through the detective work of individual scholars such as Coluccio, old manuscripts emerged from the forgotten shelves of far-away libraries, unearthing a kind of Latin that seemed totally fresh, and yet was much closer to the ancient form of the language. Scholars began to see contemporary Latin as cumbersome and inelegant in comparison to the classical version they discovered, believing it could offer them direct access to the wisdom and values of the Roman writers like Cicero and Virgil they so revered. Writing, reading – communication – became of prime importance for the personal development of each individual, and also for the community.
Humanists were not only scholars, but often lawyers and advisers to kings and magistrates. They identified a keen need for servants to the community who were both imbued with the ethics of antiquity, such as loyalty and courage, and who were also supremely adept at rhetoric.
This focus on language, persuasion, and writing encouraged a new kind of diplomacy, employing paper as an ambassador, going hand-in-hand with the emergence of city-states like Genoa, Florence, Siena, and Venice from the twelfth century onwards. Communication, just as today, regulated political relationships, and it was crucial to make very sure the receiver understood your message in precisely the way intended. When you don’t have facial expressions, gestures, posture, or tone of voice as a means to massage your bare words into this or that direction, you need crutches like exclamation marks and semicolons to control your meaning from afar as much as possible. The goal was to eliminate ambiguity.
At the cusp of the Renaissance, during the thirteenth century, a new trend arose, paving the way for subsequent developments: the “art of letter writing”, or ars dictaminis, originating in Italy and codifying how to write an elegant polite letter. Rhetoric – persuasion – was king. And whatever helped to cajole, and control, was fair game. Whether that be !, or –, or ( ), or … .
But punctuation wasn’t only a boon to politics: while it had been kept a secret jealously guarded for hundreds of years, ensuring reading remained a prerogative of the nobility and the Church, the Renaissance saw it trickling into schools and trade, speeding up communication between merchants and trading nodes from Lisbon to Cairo. Ships, roads, currencies, and banking systems all contributed to lively trade, but such fundamentals as punctuation must not be underestimated. During the thirteenth century, the know-how of papermaking had arrived in Italy via Arab Spain and Arab settlers, turning paper from hemp and linen rags into viable competitors to expensive parchment. When the medium to write on becomes cheaper and more available, more writing will be done; writing will take on more responsibility, and writing will need little helpers like punctuation to make sense of it. The faster, clearer, and cheaper the communication, the more exchange there is between communities in terms of commerce and culture, fostering flourishing activity. Nursing civilisation.
What is true for the West is also true for the East. Punctuation makes cultural blooming possible whenever, wherever. During the late nineteenth century, Arab literati around the Mediterranean realised how much they had become dependent on the language of the colonisers for self-expression, notably French. Arabic is a highly complex language for any learner, but without punctuation to clarify meaning, it requires years of intensive study, which was mostly a pre-requisite of theologians at the time.
This, the female journalist and writer Zeynab Fawwaz from Lebanon and her colleagues believed, led to an atrophy in writing of any kind in Arabic. From the 1890s onwards, they started lobbying for the development of punctuation in Arabic in order to render the language accessible to its own people regardless of education level, hoping this would stimy the spread of French as the language of intellectual expression in the Maghreb and Levant. When new marks proposed by journalist Hassan at-Tuwayrani didn’t cut it, Fawwaz and her entourage simply imported European punctuation marks, subverting the coloniser by appropriating what worked for their own anti-colonial purposes. By the 1920s, Arabic employed all the marks Western writing systems used, too. Today, Arabic as well as Urdu, Hindi, and languages of other communities formerly colonised by the West, and languages of countries that were not colonised but subject to Western influence like Japanese and Persian, all surf the wave of the tricky task of disambiguating written language through European punctuation, producing thriving textual outputs. Punctuation offers its gifts regardless of native language.
As our technologies containing and producing language keep changing, punctuation keeps changing. We use fewer full stops in texting, for example, and more punctuation-like pictures, that is emoji. Text becomes shorter and snappier, making the semicolon obsolete. But the longevity of the punctuation marks we are currently using attests to their universal usefulness. Most written languages in the world contain them, as well as Braille and sign language; most often, the same set of marks: , and ; and ? and ! and a few others. Punctuation makes reading possible, reading makes everything else possible. And so, something as small as a dot can have the most profound effect on human history. In spite of the communication changes we are experiencing today, we had better hold onto regular punctuation for a little bit longer. Just in case.
M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Cambridge: Scholar Press, 1992).
Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (New York: Norton, 2014).
David Crystal, Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (London: Profile, 2015).
Anne Henry (ed.) et al, Mar(k)ing the Text: The Presentation of Meaning on the Literary Page (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).
Laurie Maguire, The Rhetoric of the Page (Oxford: OUP, 2020).
Florence is a scholar of Renaissance literature and writer of literary non-fiction for a public audience. She was educated at the Universities of Cambridge and St Andrews, and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva, and a Leverhulme Early Career Scholar at the University of Sheffield. Florence has written on punctuation amongst others for the Guardian and the Washington Post, and is a BBC New Generation Thinker. She is working on her second book on the history and culture of punctuation called Standing on Points (forthcoming with Profile in 2024). Her whimsical biography of the exclamation mark is published by Profile in 2022, and is called An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!.