A Very Brief History of Punctuation
Did you know that some early Greek and Latin texts lacked any punctuation whatsoever? There often weren't even distinct line breaks or paragraphs either. It was up to the reader or orator to figure it out. Can you imagine reading dense philosophy or a mathematics lesson without the information being separated into paragraphs with sentences? Yikes!
Around 200 B.C., Aristophanes (Greek literary critic, grammarian and chief librarian in Alexandria, Egypt) decided it was time to insert tiny dots throughout written text to help orators determine when to pause · and when to stop · when reading aloud. These tiny dots would one day morph into the comma, colon, and period.
After the printing press was invented 500 or so years later, punctuation started to become more standardized with the growth of mass publishing. And then another few hundred years later, smartphones and social media began to change how writers use punctuation online and in their communication.
Here’s what you need to know about common punctuation marks and how they’re unofficially used in online communication in the 21st century.
The period has certainly received the most attention in recent years. A few items from the press: “The Period Is Pissed” from New Republic, The New York Times piece “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style.” and “Stop. Using. Periods. Period.” from The Washington Post. As you can tell from those headlines, our relationship with the period has become somewhat hostile as of late.
It’s common practice to send a new text message to break a line of text instead of sending a text with a period at the end of it. In fact, if you send “Okay. Fine.” in a single text with periods, many recipients of that text might perceive it as being unfriendly or sarcastic. It’s implicit that a new text is a start of a new sentence. If the sender feels the need to put in an unnecessary period, it’s often a semantic choice. Periods are now habitually used as if they are emoticons. They tend to express sarcasm, annoyance, anger, and other types of emphasis.
The Exclamation Point
The exclamation point is now used in emails and other communications as a foundation for politeness. If someone types, “Thanks.” or simply “thanks” at the end of an email, you might ask yourself if you had offended or upset them in some way.
At one time, exclamation points were used to express imperatives, intense excitement, or anger. Not anymore. Now they are simply used to express a friendly tone. The Onion even created a satirical piece concerning the “diabolical omission” of exclamation marks from an email in response to this phenomenon.
The Question Mark
Oftentimes, the question mark is used for emphasis, especially in the rhetorical sense. For instance, if you ask your neighbor, “You want to do what?” after she just mentioned that she wants to skydive off the Eifel Tower, you’re not actually expecting an answer. You’re expressing shock and being emphatic.
The question mark isn’t regularly used for sincere questions and requests for unknown information anymore. Sometimes writers simply put a question mark at the end of a statement to ask a question. For example, he or she writes, “This is the way it should be?” instead of asking the more formal question, “Is this the way it should be?” or stating “This is not the way it should be.” Current writers tend to use question marks to make emphatic and rhetorical statements rather than requests for information.
The Em Dash
The em dash is now frequently used instead of commas, colons, and parentheses. It’s less formal and easier to use when writing an online post. The dash is also the most versatile of all the frequently used punctuation marks — especially when they’re used for asides or parenthetical statements.
Many writers prefer using em dashes because they draw the reader’s eyes — as well as his or her attention — to a specific area of text. They also reflect how the human mind works when reading. Instead of debating about whether to use parentheses or commas—or where to put them—writers can just insert dashes where they want the reader to pause or ponder an aside comment.
The use of the em dash is strikingly reminiscent of Aristophanes’ use of tiny dots centuries ago. This begs the question of whether we have always used punctuation marks in the same way. Are smartphones and social media in fact weakening our punctuation usage, or morphing it into something new in the 21st century? Let us know what you think in the comments section.