A Brief History of Punctuation: From Greeks to Irish Geeks to Minimalists to Digitalist Textspeak
Updated: Oct 9
From writing for reading aloud to writing for reading silently, our writing system has evolved from a rudimentary and temporary means for transportation of speech into an independent medium for preservation of thought and an ultimate art form.
What's more, as the history of this medium shows, this evolution could not have happened without the co-evolving system of punctuation.
Initially written all in uppercase and without any gaps, oratorial texts were subsequently marked (punctuated) by speakers themselves to signal where to take a breath, where to pause, and how long to pause for. There was no such thing as reading something at first seating.
Greek Plays and Oratorial Reading Aloud
Until the end of the Middle Ages, reading, as we know it, did not exist. Texts were recorded with the sole purpose of being read aloud by orators and politicians, or chanted by priests.
Earlier Greek and Latin writings were written in an uninterrupted stream of capital letters (lowercased letters had not yet been invented), with no spaces separating words. So, the only way such a text could be understood was by reading it aloud, even if only to oneself, to hear its syntactic structure.
Initially viewed as highly inferior to speech and used only for messaging and recording of business transactions (which, before the West shifted from Roman to Indian-Arabic numerals, was rather limited), writing became an important tool for recording texts intended to be delivered orally: for example, Greek plays or Roman oratory speeches.
Punctuation is a phenomenon of written language, and its history is tied to that of the written medium. Although writing has long stopped being a mere reflection of the spoken word, it has historically developed to transport and preserve speech.
Greek playwrights would occasionally place vertically arranged dots between phrases, clauses, and sentences to indicate pauses and to help actors read their parts. Thus, the earliest rhetorical (prosodic) punctuation systems, guided by the use of pauses and intonation in speech, were developed to reflect human speech to guide speakers when they read the written text aloud.
Christianity, the Bible, and the Infallibility of the Scriptures
With the spread of Christianity across Europe, facilitated through the distribution of handwritten Latin-based Bibles, punctuation became indispensable in ensuring proper readability aloud—for the God's word could not be allowed to be misread!
When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (c. A.D. 400), he insisted that the new translation be further copied in a format used by Roman oratory teachers. Due to the lack of any separation marks in writing, Roman instructors practiced dividing the reading text into sections of phrases (sense-units), each sense-unit starting from a new indented line (logical!).
As an aid in reading aloud, early punctuation was used to delineate the speech rhythm rather than the grammatical structure of a text.
Although Latin was the foundation of most Western European languages, they had already begun diverting from their parent language. As helpful as the new educational format was, it remained insufficient. Most Europeans did not know Latin or were simply illiterate, needing as much guidance in reading as their non-Latin counterparts.
The Irish Monks’ Supreme Invention
So, when a translated and beautifully recreated Bible reached the British Isles, the Celtic monks genuinely struggled to comprehend the sacred language of Rome. The Bible that reached them was still written only in capital letters, but with the innovative visual marks that divided the text into sense-units, which were realigned horizontally and signified pauses of varying length.
Before the monk scribes could comprehend the sense-units of the Bible, they needed to know where one word ended and the other one started.
The Bible was the first properly punctuated book!
This is when a great anonymous Irish monk invented the most important punctuation mark that has ever been created—the spacing. The Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks also created quotation marks, formatted as angle brackets on page margins, which they used to indicate Bible quotations in other books. In effect, by rearranging the text to convey the meaning as they understood it, these amazing monks did not only enhance St. Jerome’s Bible but also provided their interpretation of one of the most cryptic books ever written.
In addition to creating what amounted to be the first “Bible Reader,” the Irish “superhero” punctuators significantly contributed to the development of a visual “grammar of legibility.” This signified a major paradigm shift towards an autonomous writing, which “spoke” to readers silently and which readers were able to grasp visually, as well as audibly.
Interestingly enough, when Irish scribes copied the Bible in their own native language, they did not just write each word separately but grouped the words in prosodic phrases. Reflecting the naturally occurring prosodic pauses, the Irish copy of the Bible was meant to assist other countrymen when they read it aloud. Therefore, the understanding of writing was gradually evolving from a speech representation as a temporary vocalizing aid to a representation of speech as a stationary writing, meant to be read while remaining written.
The Latin copy of the Scriptures was thus significantly restructured by and for foreign speakers through the use of the ingenious, innovative system of prosodical marking, which eventually liberated the sacred text for silent reading “by the eye of one’s mind”.
The Printing Revolution, or How We All Became Silent Readers
The written word remained secondary to the spoken word well into the Late Middle Ages. In trade and legal areas, written deeds of land or wills did not become legally binding in England until the 17th century. The flimsiness of written documents and, most importantly, their susceptibility to forgery, did not inspire confidence in pragmatically minded property owners.
For the most part of human history, communities strongly preferred the spoken word to the written word. In a dispute, a charge, or a defense against one's accusation, people strongly preferred to rely on a personal account or a living human witness. Trusting one’s writing is a fairly modern notion.
Most transactions were oral agreements concluded in the necessary presence of several witnesses. In the world where one's reputation meant everything, a word from any of these witnesses was trusted much more than any written document.
With the invention of printing in the 15th century (c. 1450–1800), the entire European continent, including England, and beyond began to effectively transform into a global culture of readers and writers. With the growing accessibility and popularity of reading, along with the societal encouragement of public literacy, reading aloud gave way to silent reading. The speed of reading silently, as opposed to reading handwritten manuscripts aloud, increased exponentially, underscoring the usefulness of punctuation and the need to standardize writing conventions.
Just like in other parts of Europe, in England, the invention of printing, in combination with the burgeoning capitalism, spurred public literacy and promoted silent reading. English punctuation, in particular, owes its standardization to the work of printers and grammarians, and subsequently to the guidelines set by publishing houses.
By the 16th century, punctuation was largely reworked and further augmented as part of a uniform writing and grammar system for a growing population of readers. The new in-the-line punctuation now included ending sentences with a colon or a full stop (period), a prettier comma, the newly invented semicolon (all of them denoting pauses of varying lengths), and the occasional use of parentheses.
Despite or maybe because of the growing formalism in writing, punctuation marks eventually came to reflect the grammatical (rule-based), rather than the spoken, aspects of written text.
Punctuating in Style
As writing grew increasingly autonomous from, and equivalent to, speech, it came to be understood as communicating directly with our minds through our eyes. The growing importance of self-contained writing and, with that, of the original authorship transformed a literary endeavor into a highly regarded, even celebrated, literary achievement.
The writer's increasing autonomy gave rise to the so-called author’s punctuation. Although never forced to conform to any prescriptive rules of punctuation (indeed, the matter of punctuating one's manuscript has always been viewed as a prerogative of editors and publishers) and granted all the freedoms to experiment with the conventions, authors have only highlighted the importance of conventional punctuation. After all, the experimentation only works if conventions are widely known and shared.
Not unlike musical notation that tells musicians how the composer had intended for the composition to sound out, punctuation marks are the way for the writer to signal her intended meaning as her rightful claim. They are also the embodiment of the author's welcoming hospitality and care for the visiting readers wishing to take a journey into the author's mind.
Curiously, the understanding of punctuation in terms of its most vital functions—its roles in delineating the syntax and clarifying the meaning of the text—took centuries to gain traction (that is, not until the 16th century). Nowadays, punctuation tends to be based on specific punctuation-related rules, have occasional prosodic elements and a strong sense of syntax, while guiding the reader towards the intended meaning of the written text.
The Many Functions of Punctuation
Most languages have viewed punctuation as performing at least some or all these functions, many of which overlap:
Prosodical (speech-based, intonational, voice pitch)
Rhetorical (prosodical, expressive)
Syntactical (structural, language-specific)
Semantic (logical, contextual)
Stylistic (expressive, author’s punctuation)
Pragmatic (communicative, contextual)
Typographical (publishers' style guides)
Symbolical (technical, specialized, e.g., math symbols)
Rather than representing the rhythms and intonational patterns that occur in speech, the current punctuation system in English has decidedly dispensed with the use of prosodical punctuation, reflecting grammar, logic, and pragmatics of the language, while continuing questioning some rhetorical uses. On the other hand, Russian has a very strong tradition of using grammatical and syntactical punctuation. And Turkish, still lacking a comprehensive and consistent punctuation system, often utilizes prosodical and rhetorical punctuation.
From Modernist Minimalism to Digitalist Textspeak
Some English linguists argue in favor of light (minimalist) punctuation—the punctuation used exclusively to clarify the meaning or prevent any misreading of the written text. The minimalists often underappreciate the usefulness of some of the marks and even deride the use of others: semicolon, for instance, has unfairly taken a real beating from some writers and grammarians.
The minimalists would probably point to an easy irony about punctuation—that the white space—i.e., the lack of punctuation, as one may say—was the best invention in the history of writing. The absence of punctuation, however, is also punctuation! As are any other textual breaks, including paragraphs and indentation.
I do not subscribe to minimalism. Nor do I subscribe to any opposite extreme. Punctuation can, and must, be moderate. More precisely, it should be moderate, or just the right amount. Punctuation is a testament to human ingenuity. With only a dozen of graphemes, it is a transparent layer of an additional sign-language placed upon a stream of words, which acts as a deciphering code of dots and shapes, able to magically transform a text into a meaningful message.
Just like the Irish monks came to discover its potency, punctuation must be especially helpful to language learners, who should especially benefit from punctuation as the author's additional channel of communication with the readers, who are bound to find solace in the author's care and forethought put into the writing.
The best writing should never forget its roots in speech and remain utterable; it should also be able to transcend those roots by creating a profound, resonate melody.
Some linguists have noted that, as digital communication grows ubiquitous, our writing conventions may be undergoing yet another transformation so that, once again, to bring us closer to the way we speak. For example, as we we increasingly shift to messaging, texting, emailing, or chatting each other, our understanding of punctuation changes accordingly. For example, the uses of multiple question marks and exclamation points, the popularity of muti-dot ellipsis, the reliance on multiple newlines, and the categorical rejection of a single period (whose finality seems to run contrary to the promise of the endless scrolling) seem to reflect the pauses and false starts that occur in speech.
If anything, this new style of communicative writing with immediate feedback is an opposite of the minimalist approach. Its tendency to simulate the flow of the actual everyday conversation—through excessive uses of punctuation, abbreviations, or emoticons—has inspired linguists to call this style textspeak.
Writing has been historically rooted in the way we speak, and so it remains to this day.
Read more about how writing, and therefore punctuation, reflects the way we speak.