Punctuation in English since 1600

The Punctuation Marks

In English, the "full stop" or "period" (.) marks the end of a sentence. The "colon" (:) is at the transition point of the sentence. The "semicolon" (;) separates different clauses, or statements. The "comma" (,) separates clauses, phrases, and particles.

The "dash" (--) marks abruptness or irregularity. The "exclamation" (!) marks surprise. The "interrogation" or "query" (?) asks a question. The apostrophe (') marks elisions or the possessive case. "Quotes," quotation marks, or "inverted commas" (" ") define either quoted words or words used with special emphasis or significance. Interpolations in a sentence are marked by various forms of bracket [] or parenthesis. Usage and practice vary widely, however.

Their history in English since 1600

By the end of the 16th century writers of English were using most of the marks described by the younger Aldo in 1566; but their purpose was elocutionary, not syntactical. When George Puttenham, in his treatise The Arte of English Poesie(1589), and Simon Daines, in Orthoepia Anglicana (1640), specified a pause of one unit for a comma, of two units for a semicolon, and of three for a colon, they were no doubt trying to bring some sort of order into a basically confused and unsatisfactory situation. The punctuation of Elizabethan drama, of the devotional prose of John Donne or of Richard Hooker, and indeed of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) was almost wholly elocutionary; and it lacked the inflectional element that had been the making of 12th-century punctuation.

It was Ben Jonson, in his English Grammar, a work composed about 1617 and published posthumously in 1640, who first recommended syntactical punctuation in England. An early example is the 1625 edition of Francis Bacon's Essayes; and from the Restoration onward syntactical punctuation was in general use. Influential treatises on syntactical punctuation were published by Robert Monteith in 1704 and Joseph Robertson in 1795. Excessive punctuation was common in the 18th century: at its worst it used commas with every subordinate clause and separable phrase. Vestiges of this attitude are found in a handbook published in London as late as 1880.

It was the lexicographers Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler in The King's English, published in 1906, who established the current British practice of light punctuation. Punctuation in the United States has followed much the same path as in Britain, but the rules laid down by American authorities have in general been more rigid than the British rules.

The system of punctuation now used by writers of English has been complete since the 17th century. Three of its most important components are the space left blank between words; the indentation of the first line of a new paragraph; and the uppercase, or capital, letter written at the beginning of a sentence and at the beginning of a proper name or a title. The marks of punctuation, also known as points or stops, and the chief parts that they play in the system are as follows.

The end of a grammatically complete sentence is marked by a full point, full stop, or period. The period may also be used to mark abbreviations. The colon (:), which was once used like a full point and was followed by an uppercase letter, now serves mainly to indicate the beginning of a list, summary, or quotation. The semicolon (;) ranks halfway between a comma and a full point. It may be substituted for a period between two grammatically complete sentences that are closely connected in sense; in a long or complicated sentence, it may precede a coordinate conjunction (such as "or," "and," or "but"). A most usual means of indicating the syntactical turning points in a sentence, it is exposed to abuse. It may be used to separate the elements of a series, before a relative clause that does not limit or define its antecedent, in pairs to set off or isolate words or phrases, or in combination with coordinating conjunctions.

Other punctuation marks used in modern English include parentheses, which serve, like a pair of commas, to isolate a word or phrase; question, exclamation, and quotation marks; the hyphen; and the apostrophe.

Copyright © 1994-1998 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

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Punctuation in English since 1600
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