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PUNCTUATION The practice in WRITING and PRINT of using a set of marks to regulate texts and clarify their meanings, principally by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses, and by indicating parentheses and asides. Until the 18c, punctuation was closely related to spoken delivery, including pauses to take breath, but in more recent times has been based mainly on grammatical structure. There are two extremes in its use: heavy punctuation and light punctuation. In the 18–19c, people tended to punctuate heavily, especially in their use of commas. Currently, punctuation is more sparing, but individuals and house styles vary in what they consider necessary; the same writer may punctuate more heavily or lightly for some purposes than for others.


In antiquity and the early Middle Ages, points were used, either singly or in combination, to separate sentences, or in some cases (such as Roman inscriptions) to separate words. Key figures in the development of punctuation up to 1600 are St Jerome in the 5c AD (in Latin translations of the Bible), Alcuin in the 8c (Anglo-Saxon tutor at the court of the Emperor Charlemagne, responsible for a new spelling and punctuation system for biblical and liturgical manuscripts), two Venetian printers (grandfather and grandson) both named Aldus Manutius in the 15c–16c (who developed a system using marks equivalent to the present-day PERIOD, COLON, SEMICOLON, and COMMA), and the Elizabethan critic George Puttenham (whose Arte of English Poesie, 1589, included advice on punctuation as a means of marking a text for sense and metre). The declamatory basis for punctuation was, however, replaced in the 17c by the syntactic approach of the playwright and grammarian Ben Jonson (incorporated posthumously in his English Grammar of 1640). Before the 17c, and especially in the work of William CAXTON and other early printers, punctuation was haphazard and erratic, with little attention paid to syntax.

Older terms and marks

Most of the principal terms and marks now in use in English date from the 15–16c, and some of the names are first attested in the writing of Puttenham or his contemporaries. Most are of Greek origin, and referred originally not to marks but to the sections of text that they marked off. For example, the terms colon and comma originally denoted the parts of a line or SENTENCE in verse, not prose: a kôlon was at first a part of a strophe (a section of a poem), and only later came to refer, by analogy, to a clause in a sentence; a kómma (from kóptein to cut) was a ‘piece cut off’ (a short clause). The term APOSTROPHE (from apó away, stréphein to turn) denoted a mark of ‘turning away’ (elision), and the term HYPHEN (from huphén in one) was used by the grammarians of Alexandria to denote a symbol that links elements meant to be read as one word. The use of the hyphen to divide words at the ends of lines of text dates from the 14c, and evolved from a marginal tick or check mark used to show that the final word of a line was not complete. Eventually, the terms for sections of text were transferred to the signs that mark the sections off one from another; no one now calls a phrase a comma or a clause a colon, nor do the marks now precisely relate to such segments of text. Generally, however, the historical connection continues.

More recent terms and marks

Other terms are more recent and have superseded older equivalents. The Greek-derived PERIOD came to refer to a punctuation mark around 1600, another example of a term that originally referred to sentence structure (in this case, a complete sentence). The terms STOP and full stop, for the same mark, date from about the same time: both occur in Shakespeare with reference to the ending of a speech or discourse: for example, in The Merchant of Venice (3. 1.17), ‘come, the full stop’. Earlier terms were POINT (found in Chaucer and still in use, especially in the terminology of printing) and the Latin punctus. Full point has also long been in use. Currently, period is the common usage in AmE and full stop in BrE. The term QUESTION MARK has been used for less than a century: the earlier term was mark/point of interrogation (late 16c). It is a descendant of the punctus interrogativus, one of the marks found in 10–13c liturgical manuscripts, where it indicated inflection of the voice. The terms mark/note of exclamation and SEMICOLON both date from the 17c. The term DASH, which originally meant ‘a blow’, reached its present meaning in punctuation via the sense ‘hasty stroke of the pen’, often the case in writing. Bracket is not attested in this context until the 18c; the earlier term parenthesis (which continues in use, usually in the plural) generally refers also to the part of the sentence that the punctuation delimits, but in AmE is also used for what are in BrE called round brackets. The symbols now in use have evolved from many centuries of practice. The points derive from classical practice, the comma was a development of the late medieval virgule or stroke (/), also used as a separator, and the semicolon came into use in the Byzantine era; in Greek, it was and is used to mark a question.

Uses: linking and separating

Currently, punctuation serves to clarify the meaning of written language by marking strings of words into associated groups. It is based mainly on grammatical structure and has both a linking function and a separating function: linking in the listing use of commas as in They bought a newspaper, two magazines, and a cassette; separating in the short sentences We didn't know. But they knew from the start.

Points and commas.

The marks most commonly used are the point/period/full stop and the comma. These generally signal or establish boundaries, the period marking out sentences and the comma marking out associated words within sentences. The single comma may cause difficulty because it is a flexible and often optional mark and has applications that need to be weighed carefully in a specific piece of writing. Usage varies as to its inclusion in statements such as a large, untidy house and a little black dog: it is generally included when the notions underlying the words are of different kinds, as with large and untidy (whereas little and black go together in describing the type of dog in question). As a rule of thumb, if and can be inserted idiomatically between the adjectives, a comma tends to be used (a large and untidy house, therefore a large, untidy house); but if and cannot be so inserted, a comma is not used (*a little and black dog, therefore a little black dog). Paired commas are more straightforward; they mark parenthesis in ways similar to dashes and brackets, although with less effect. Note the increased emphasis on the words ‘and helpful’ in the following:(1) People in the north are more friendly and helpful than those in the south.(2) People in the north are more friendly, and helpful, than those in the south.(3) People in the north are more friendly (and helpful) than those in the south.(4) People in the north are more friendly—and helpful—than those in the south.

Brackets often replace pairs of commas when the words marked off are added comment, especially explanation: He is (as he always was) a rebel. The following extract shows commas, brackets, and dashes used in one fairly long sentence:
The why and wherefore of the scorpion—how it had got on board and came to select his room rather than the pantry (which was a dark place and more what a scorpion would be partial to), and how on earth it managed to drown itself in the ink-well of his writing-desk—had exercised him infinitely.( Joseph Conrad , The Secret Sharer)

Colons, semicolons, and dashes.

The colon and especially the semicolon are often avoided in writing by hand because of uncertainty as to their precise uses, a view that they are rather formal and old-fashioned, and best left to certain kinds of printed text. In less formal writing, the dash is often a catch-all mark to take the place of both colon and semicolon, obviating the need to distinguish them or think about more subtle kinds of punctuation. They can be effective when used sparingly, in linking thoughts that go more closely together than separate sentences would allow and, in the case of the colon, in leading from one idea to its consequence or logical continuation, especially in the use of the colon at the end of a sentence, leading to a quotation or a list. The following sentences show how a semicolon can link two parallel statements, whereas a colon serves better when the intention is to lead from one thought to the next:
semicolon There was no truth in the accusation; it was totally false.
colon There was no truth in the accusation: they rejected it utterly.

Division into separate sentences, though grammatically satisfactory, implies a separateness (which the voice conveys with a longer pause) that is not always appropriate:
point There was no truth in the accusation. They rejected it utterly.

Compare the following, in which the second sentence is quite distinct:There was no truth in the accusation. The other problem was why they had not been warned.

In the following extract, the semicolons provide continuity of thought in the first sentence, with distinctness in the short sentences that follow:
Her husband…was intent on listening to a Beethoven symphony on the gramophone and frowned across the room at Maggie to keep her voice down; he made an irritable gesture with his hand to accompany the frown; he was not in the least disenthralled with Maggie; he only wanted to savour the mighty bang-crash and terror of sound which would soon be followed by the sweet ‘never mind’, so adorable to his ears, of the finale. He was a sentimental man. Maggie and Mary lowered their voices.( Muriel Spark , The Takeover)

Some writers, such as Henry James, are sometimes accused of overusing the semicolon, producing sentences that continue for half a page or more. In the following sentence, however, the colon and commas are effectively used:
The sense of the past revived for him nevertheless as it had not yet done: it made that other time somehow meet the future close, interlocking with it, before his watching eye, as in a long embrace of arms and lips, and so handling and hustling the present that this poor quantity scarce retained substance enough, scarce remained sufficiently there, to be wounded or shocked.( Henry James , The Golden Bowl)

Without careful use of separating punctuation marks, the following, from the same source, would be almost unintelligible:
What had happened, in short, was that Charlotte and he had by a single turn of the wrist of fate—‘led up’ to indeed, no doubt, by steps and stages that conscious computation had missed—been placed face to face in a freedom that partook, extraordinarily, of ideal perfection, since the magic web had spun itself without their toil, almost without their touch.

Avoiding ambiguity.

Punctuation also plays an important role in the avoidance of ambiguity or misunderstanding, especially by means of the comma (which separates) and the hyphen (which links), as in They did not go, because they were lazy as opposed to They did not go because they were lazy, in twenty-odd people as opposed to twenty odd people, and in sentences like From then, on meeting a friend he would smile as opposed to From then on, meeting a friend was a great pleasure for him. A carefully entered hierarchy of punctuation adds clarity to a long or complex sentence, as in the following:
I came out of the house, which lay back from the road, and saw them at the end of the path; but instead of continuing towards them, I hid until they had gone.

A period/full stop would also be possible here in the place of the semicolon, but it would break the continuity.

Hyphen and apostrophe: recent developments

In everyday use and in ephemeral writing such as newsprint, punctuation is generally less precisely used than in more formal and permanent forms of writing and printing. The use of some marks is declining, especially the hyphen and the apostrophe. The hyphen is currently less common in forming compound words (such as newspaper, worldwide) and in separating vowels that may have the values of digraphs when placed together (as in coordinate, makeup). Arguably, the possessive apostrophe is needed only to distinguish number, as in the girl's books and the girls' books. In other cases, it could be (and increasingly is) dispensed with without any loss of clarity in such phrases as Johns books and their mothers voice; these are as comprehensible today as they were before the mark was introduced. It is also disappearing in names, such as Smiths and Lloyds Bank.


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punc·tu·ate / ˈpəngkchoōˌāt/ • v. [tr.] 1. (often be punctuated) occur at intervals throughout (a continuing event or a place): the country's history has been punctuated by coups. ∎  (punctuate something with) interrupt or intersperse (an activity) with: she punctuates her conversation with snatches of song. 2. insert punctuation marks in (text). 3. accentuate; emphasize: the end of the Cold War was punctuated by an extraordinary assertion of American power.

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punc·tu·a·tion / ˌpəngkchoōˈāshən/ • n. 1. the marks, such as period, comma, and parentheses, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning. 2. Biol. rapid or sudden speciation, as posited by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. DERIVATIVES: punc·tu·a·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.