Can you read this?
Whilst our brains may be sophisticated enough to read this, if you were to send something similar out to one of your prospective customers, what would they think? Fortunately, we have punctuation to thank for making it a whole lot easier.
We tend to pay lip-service to those little marks that populate the pages of stuff we read and write, but do we actually know what they all mean and where they come from?
Here’s a potted history of some of the more common punctuation marks that we use and what they mean:
The comma is being used less and less nowadays as we become slaves to social media. There is a time and place for that kind of communication but there should always be a place for the humble little comma, especially in longer forms of writing.
If you’ve written a long sentence, a comma should be used to denote a natural pause, to make it easier to understand the full context of the sentence. Sometimes we write long lists of items and each item should be separated by a comma.
The comma started life as a ‘slash’ (/) but over the years it has been minimised and eventually became the comma we know today.
Semicolon / Colon
Think of the semicolon as the big brother of the comma. It should be used to separate long phrases in a list or to link two or more related clauses that would otherwise be joined by ‘and’ or ‘but’.
The colon is most commonly used to introduce a list such as this:
- It could be used to introduce a series of bullet points or
- A numbered list
The colon and semicolon both featured in Gregorian chants – the colon as a “punctus elevatas” (‘elevated point’ in Latin) and the semicolon as a “punctus versus” (‘long pause’ in Latin). The colon first appeared in the 1600s to denote a pause time greater than a comma but less than a full stop.
A question mark is used after a statement that is a question. It takes the place of a full stop and, therefore, the next sentence will begin with a capital letter.
The question mark first appeared in the 15th century and was known as the “punctus interrogatives” (point of interrogation in Latin).
Oxford Dictionaries offers a theory on how the shape of the question mark came about – it began as a dot with a rising ‘tilde’ (.~) to denote upward inflection. Then over the years the present day shape evolved as more and more people tried to use the mark.
An exclamation mark is used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, any other such strong emotion and to add additional emphasis.
One theory for the origin of the exclamation mark is that it comes from the Latin word for joy (“io”). The letter ‘i’ then moved above the ‘o’ and over time came to look like the present day mark.
An apostrophe has 2 uses:
- To show that something belongs to someone, e.g. John’s car
- To show that letters have been missed out, e.g. I’m, don’t
It was widely used in the 16th century particularly by the French to act as a junction of two vowel sounds (e.g. la heure became l’heure). Over time English speakers used the mark to contract words and leave unpronounced letters out without losing any meaning.
The full stop is used to denote the end of a sentence, unless you are using an exclamation mark or a question mark to achieve the same purpose.
Back in the 3rd century BC, Aristophanes offered a solution to the continuous Greek writing style by having a dot to denote a pause. It is now the most commonly used punctuation mark in the English language.
Dash / Hyphen
Instead of using commas or semi-colons, we sometimes use dashes which should not be confused with hyphens. This gets a bit more complicated depending on which side of the Pond you are.
The en-rule dash (–) tends to be used in British styles and the em-rule dash (—) tends to be used in American styles. You can see that the em-rule dash is slightly longer than the en-rule dash and they are both longer than a hyphen.
Back in the days of printing presses and where metal letters were set in trays, the en-rule dash was so called because it was the equivalent width of a capital ‘N’. Likewise the em-rule dash was the equivalent width of a capital ‘M’.
Dashes can be used to explain something instead of using a comma or brackets, e.g. ‘the coat – with its 4 pockets – is very popular with walkers’ or to show a sequence, e.g. 2010–2014, A–Z, Bristol–Bath
A hyphen (-), on the other hand, is not the same as an en-rule dash (–). It’s half the length for a start.
A soft hyphen is inserted automatically by your word processing software when there isn’t enough room on the line. It will disappear if you move the text around. Then there is a hard hyphen which is inserted when you consciously key the mark to divide a word in two. It will stay there when you move text around.
There are some words that can be a bit misleading when they are split by a hyphen at the end of a line, e.g.
First part Good Misleading
Dec- laration ision
Desig- nate ners
Mac- intosh hine
Mean- ing der
Read- ing just
Rein- deer force
Thou- sands ghtful
There are some other word breaks that need particular care as they could get you into some bother if they go unnoticed, e.g.
As a proofreader / copy editor, it would be remiss of me, as previously suggested, to pay lip-service to punctuation. These little marks can make all the difference to the meaning of a sentence or a passage of content. That is why I focus a lot of my attention on making sure that not only are the marks being used but that they are being put in the right places.
If you would like to explore ways that working with a trained proofreader can benefit your business, please get in touch…