Punctuation is a device by which we aid words to tell their story. Words
have done this at times without such aid, and may now do so, but at
constant risk of serious misunderstanding. This can be easily seen by
reading the following lines printed as they would have been written in
an ancient manuscript.
Probably this particular passage could be read without danger of serious
misunderstanding. The two well-known passages which follow, however, are
cases where either a simple statement may become a ridiculous travesty
or a serious arraignment may become a eulogy by punctuation.
Punctuate the following so as to express two very different meanings:
Lord Palmerston then entered on his head a white hat upon his feet
large but well polished boots upon his brow a dark cloud in his hand
a faithful walking stick in his eye a menacing glare saying nothing.
Punctuate the following in two ways: one to represent a very bad man,
and the other a very good man:
He is an old man and experienced in vice and wickedness he is never
found in opposing the works of iniquity he takes delight in the
downfall of his neighbors he never rejoices in the prosperity of his
fellow-creatures he is always ready to assist in destroying the
peace of society he takes no pleasure in serving the Lord he is
uncommonly diligent in sowing discord among his friends and
acquaintances he takes no pride in laboring to promote the cause of
Christianity he has not been negligent in endeavoring to stigmatize
all public teachers he makes no effort to subdue his evil passions
he strives hard to build up satans kingdom he lends no aid to the
support of the gospel among the heathen he contributes largely to
the devil he will never go to heaven he must go where he will
receive the just recompense of reward.
Punctuation being intended for the sole purpose of making the text
intelligible and removing as many of the causes of possible
misunderstanding as may be, must depend in the last resort on a correct
understanding of the text. This understanding may be obtained from the
text itself, from the context, that is, the writing as a whole, or from
outside knowledge about the matter under consideration.
The prisoner said the witness was a sneak thief.
The prisoner, said the witness, was a sneak thief.
The meaning of this sentence depends entirely on the presence or absence
of the two commas.
Manuscript comes in to the printer hastily written by the customer,
author, or a reporter, or ticked over the telegraph wire, and there is
little or no punctuation. Probably the context will supply the needed
information and the line may be set up correctly. If there is no way of
finding out what the sentence means, follow copy. Insert no punctuation
marks which you are not sure are needed.
Punctuation as we know it is of recent invention. The practice of the
art of printing brought the necessity for a defined and systematized use
of the points which had, most of them, long been in existence, but which
had been used largely according to the personal preferences of the
scribes or copyists. With the coming of the new methods of book
reproduction came the recognized need for standardization and
The most ancient inscriptions and manuscripts are merely strings of
letters, without spacing between words or sentences and without any
points of any sort, like the example on page 1.
The first mark to be used was the dot, or period. Its original purpose
was simply to furnish a resting place for the eye and the mind and so
help a little in the grouping of the letters into words, clauses, and
sentences, which the mind had hitherto been compelled to do unaided. It
was used at the end of a sentence, at the end of a clause, to indicate
abbreviations, to separate crowded words, especially where the sense was
ambiguous (ANICEMAN might be either AN ICE MAN or A NICE MAN), or even
as an aesthetic ornament between the letters of an inscription. In early
manuscripts the period is usually placed high ([Symbol: High Dot])
instead of low (.).
Sometimes a slanting mark (/) or a double dot (: or ..) was used to
indicate the end of an important section of the writing or even of a
After a time spaces were introduced to show the grouping of the letters
and the words. At first the sentences were separated by spaces, then the
long words, and finally all words. In some languages, as in Italian,
there are still combinations of long and short words, such as the
combination of the pronoun with the verb, as in _datemi_, give me.
During the manuscript period different schools of copyists and even
different individuals used different marks and different systems of
pointing. For a considerable time the location of the dot indicated its
force. Placed high ([Symbol: High Dot]) it had the force of a period.
Placed in a middle position (.) it had the force of a comma. Placed low
(.) it had the force of a semicolon. The rule, however, was not
universally observed. A Latin manuscript of the seventh century has a
high dot ([Symbol: High Dot]) equivalent to a comma, a semicolon used as
at present, and a dot accompanied by another dot or a dash to indicate
the end of a sentence. A Latin manuscript of the ninth century shows the
comma and an inverted semicolon ([Symbol: Comma above Period]) having a
value between the semicolon and colon. Mediaeval manuscript pointing,
therefore, approximates modern forms in places, but lacks
standardization into recognized systems.
The spread of printing brought new needs into prominence. The early
printers used the period at the end of the sentence, the colon, and
sometimes the slanting line (/). A reversed semicolon was used as a
question mark. Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's successor in the printing
business in London, used five points in 1509. They were the period, the
semicolon, the comma, the "interrogative," and the parenthesis.
The systematization of punctuation is due mainly to the careful and
scholarly Aldus Manutius, who had opened a printing office in Venice in
1494. The great printers of the early day were great scholars as well.
For a very long time the chief concern of the printer was the opening of
the treasures of ancient thought to the world. They were therefore
compelled to be the students, critics, and editors of the old
manuscripts which served them as copy. They naturally took their
punctuation from the Greek grammarians, but sometimes with changed
meanings. The semicolon, for instance, is the Greek mark of
The period took its name from the Greek word [Greek: periodos],
periodos, meaning a division of a sentence or a thought, as we to-day
speak of an orator's eloquent periods.
The colon comes from the Greek [Greek: kolon], kolon, meaning a limb.
The comma comes from the Greek [Greek: komma], komma, from [Greek:
koptein], to cut.
The semicolon, of course, is the half colon.
The question mark was made by writing the first and last letters of the
Latin word _questio_, a question, vertically, [Symbol: q over o]
The exclamation point was made by writing the letters of the Latin word
_Io_, joy, vertically, [Symbol: I over o]
The punctuation marks now in use and treated of in this book are as
( ) parentheses
[ ] brackets
" " quotation marks
Other important marks used by printers, but not, strictly speaking,
marks of punctuation, are fully discussed in the volume on
_Abbreviations and Signs_ (No. 37) in this series.
There are two systems of punctuation in use, known respectively as the
close and open systems. The close, or stiff, system, using points
wherever they can be used, is of importance in precise composition of
every sort, such as laws, contracts, legal and ecclesiastical
statements, and the like. The open, or easy, system, omitting points
wherever they can be omitted, is used generally in the commoner forms of
composition. The tendency, sometimes pushed too far, is toward an
extremely open style of punctuation. The general attitude of writers and
printers may be summed up by saying that you must justify the use of a
punctuation mark, particularly a comma, rather than its omission.
But why should the printer bother himself about punctuation at all? Is
that not the business of the author, the editor, and the proofreader?
Strictly speaking, yes, but authors generally neglect punctuation, copy
is not usually carefully edited before going to the compositor, and
proofreader's corrections are expensive. It is therefore important that
the compositor should be intelligent about punctuation, whether he works
in a large or a small office.
The question of how far the printer may go in changing or supplying the
punctuation of copy will depend largely on circumstances. If the
condition of the manuscript is such as to show that the author really
intended to put a fully punctuated, correctly spelled, and properly
capitalized manuscript into the hands of the printer, he has a right to
have his wishes respected even if his ideas are not those which prevail
in the office. In such a case the compositor should follow copy
literally. If any questions are to be raised they should be discussed by
the proofreader _with the author_. The same rule holds in the case of
manuscripts edited before being sent to the composing room. The editor
has assumed all responsibility for the accuracy of the copy. In a great
many cases the copy will come in carelessly written and wholly unedited.
In such cases the compositor should punctuate as he goes along.
This is one of the tasks which subject the compositor to the test of
intelligence. Printing is not now and never will be a purely mechanical
trade. A printing office is no place for an apprentice who can not learn
This book contains a description of the functions of the punctuation
marks and the common rules for their use. Rules for the use of
punctuation marks are very different from rules for the use of purely
material things. They are useless unless applied intelligently. No set
of rules could be devised which would work automatically or relieve the
compositor from the necessity of thinking. Punctuation can never be
reduced to an exact science.
Certain general directions should be borne in mind by writers and
I. Learn by heart the rules for punctuation.
II. Note the peculiarities of the best writers and the best printers,
especially in contemporary examples.
III. Pay constant attention to punctuation in everything you write.
IV. Punctuate your sentence while you are writing it.
V. Understand what you are printing. _This is of supreme importance._
Punctuation is an aid to understanding. You cannot correctly punctuate
anything that you do not understand.
Next: The Comma