Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Punctuation Rules and Quotation Marks


by Sybil Johnson

I enjoyed the post on Monday by Thomas on breaking rules and quotation marks. (FYI, I really dislike it when people don’t use quotation marks for speech in fiction.) It reminded me of the time when I went down the punctuation rabbit hole. I wrote about it in a post a couple years ago. Since then I’ve found another book by David Crystal, Spell It Out, about the history of English spelling.

I thought I’d rerun that post today because sometimes it's fun to revisit stuff. FYI, my Swedish is getting better thanks to Duolingo. So here it is...

Going Down the Punctuation Rabbit Hole 

 Exclamation marks, periods, semicolons... We use them every day and don’t think anything about it. They’ve always been there for us. We think of them as being necessary for the written word. But they didn’t always exist. Even spaces between words or divisions into paragraphs wasn’t there when written language came about. 

I’ve seen this myself from the years I’ve spent studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Coptic. Nary a space in sight. It’s amazing how fast you can get used to figuring out where words and sentences begin and end. Or, in the case of AE, what direction the text is written in.

 But I didn’t really know anything about when punctuation marks came into being. I still know only a little, but I’m finding it a fascinating topic.

 This whole foray into the history of punctuation started when I read a post by author Kathleen Valenti on Chicks on the Case about exclamation points.  I, myself, am a heavy user of exclamation points in emails and letters. I’ve learned to rarely, if ever, use them in stories I write.

Her post got me thinking about the several semesters I took of Swedish (don’t ask me to translate anything, ‘cause I’ve pretty much forgotten it all). I had this vague memory that the use of ! in Swedish differs from how we use it in English. So I did a little googling and found an article on the top 5 mistakes Swedes make when writing English. Number 1(!) was in the use of the exclamation mark. In Swedish it’s used to indicate a positive friendly tone while in English we tend to think of someone shouting or being overly excited about something.

This got me thinking about how punctuation marks came about in general. So I did more googling and came across this article by Keith Houston on “The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.”

That led me to his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks where I’ve learned a bit about the pilcrow, the interrobang and other symbols like the at sign and hyphen. I’m still in the process of reading the book, but it’s great so far.

I also found the book Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation by David Crystal. This one gives a history of punctuation in English as well as advice on how to use it.

From what I’ve read so far, written texts were seen as an aid to reading aloud. Reading silently was a tad suspicious. So letters were all caps, squished together with no punctuation. Aristophanes in 200 B.C.ish came up with the first forms of punctuation to help with reading aloud. That didn’t stick. But punctuation started gradually being added until, in the 7th century, spaces in English was common practice and reading silently was no longer suspect. Basically, our current punctuation has its roots in the middle ages and was pretty much set when the printing press was invented.

There’s so much more to learn and it’s much more complicated than I’m making out. You’ll just have to pick up one of those books and see for yourself. The interrobang is an interesting little twist. It’s a cross between an exclamation mark and a question mark and was invented in the 1960s. You can put it in your Word documents by using the Wingdings 2 font. You can read a short history of it here.

Yes, you’re right, I’ve seriously gone down the rabbit hole on punctuation and I’m enjoying every single minute of it.

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