From . : ; ! ? / to :-) (seriously?)

I’d like to thank Lynne Truss for the detailed punctuation history lesson in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Each chapter introduces a set of punctuation marks and provides background as to why we have the system we use today. I am a stickler for grammar, and Truss has given me permission to stand up and declare, publically, my love for punctuation. I am ready to defend our punctuation code. In this blog, I’ll take you on a short journey from when the first punctuation marks were introduced, i.e., the comma, colon and full stop, to the 21st century where emoticons, e.g., 🙁 and ;-o, are in danger of hijacking our traditional system. My objective is educational so you may too see the continued value in punctuation and be ready to stand in its defence.

The orator

The earliest writing had no capitalisation, vowels, spaces or punctuation. Greeksranalltheirletterstogether. Letters were written down not to be read to one’s self but to be read aloud; no one was expected to read or understand a text on first sight. This was the art of oratory in the centuries before Christ (BC). However, as writing evolved a system of dots was introduced around the 5th century BC. The dots were placed at the bottom, middle or top of each line and indicated a pause of increasing length between sections of speech. Today we know them as the comma, colon and full stop.


It wasn’t until anno Domini (AD), around the 6th century, when writing really took off and other types of punctuation marks were introduced. Why? Christianity was on the rise and the bible was being produced to help spread the word of God. Instead of reading aloud, people were reading to themselves and these new marks suggested changes in tone, like the question mark, as well as grammatical meaning. A unified alphabet of letters was devised, which differentiated between upper and lower case letters, and spaces between words were introduced.

The printing press

By the time the Renaissance rolled around in the 14th century, the punctuation system was fairly well established with writers. There was the mixture of ancient Greek dots; colons, question marks, and exclamation marks; and a few late comers such as the slash and dash. This was timely as the printing press was invented around this period, and the punctuation system, as we know it, was standardised. Punctuation then remained largely frozen in time … until the late 20th century.

Electronic technology

Everyone has had easy access to technology with the introduction of computers, which has enabled anyone to create their own published content. People have taken artistic license with punctuation rules, and, for the first time since the 14th century, punctuation is showing signs of life. Marks and symbols are being used to provide emphasis and emotions to words in place of traditional punctuation. Is this a good thing? It can be very *upsetting* to GRAMMAR STICKLERS who see this as a bastardisation(!!) of our punctuation code :-(. If people insist on taking liberties with punctuation and/or using emoticons, I hope they do so after they have learnt the importance and value of our traditional system, and they are ready to defend it. As Pablo Picasso said:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

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