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


, comma

; semicolon

: colon

. period

? interrogation

! exclamation

( ) parentheses

[ ] brackets

' apostrophe

- hyphen

-- dash

" " 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

to think.

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.

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