Punctuation: Facts We Never Knew

Punctuation is everywhere in writing. Sometimes, we can even hear quotation marks or dashes in the way we speak. Every day, we are surrounded by all kinds of punctuation marks, but do we really know them as well as we like to think? Below, I’ve compiled my seven favorite facts about punctuation to change the way we see our friendly neighborhood period or comma.

1. Punctuation did not exist in early writing

Early writing consisted of long strings of symbols, characters, or letters without spaces, capitalization, or punctuation. Most of the communication before the printing press consisted of oral traditions, which required no punctuation because the gestures and voice inflections in spoken language were sufficient to impart meaning. However, the advent of printing made mass production of prints possible. Because writers needed a way to organize written language, punctuation became necessary.

2. Question marks and exclamation marks used to be words

Latin writers used the word “questio” to finish a question. Later, “questio” was abbreviated to “qo”, but because it was often read as the ending of a word, it was written in a single space with the “q” over the “o”. Over many years, the “q” became a curved line with a tail, and the “o” was relegated to a dot. Similarly, the exclamation point used to be a word “io“, which means an exclamation of joy. Again, people wrote the word in a single space, and it eventually morphed into the character we know today.

3. Periods came from dots

Ancient Romans originally had no spaces or periods and wrote in all capital letters. You can imagine how confusing all this got to read. They introduced the practice of adding a dot between words and numbers to indicate a break. Before, it was in the top, but we moved it down over the centuries and called it a period.

4. The misunderstood comma

The comma is from the Greek word “komma” which refers to something that has been cut off. In other words, when you use commas, you are “cutting off” clauses from a sentence. The comma used to be a dot in the middle of the line, signifying a short pause, but it changed shape over time.

5. Pound, number sign, or hashtag?

The # sign has a multitude of uses, from numerating to music to industry to social media, and an equally vast collection of names to match. The symbol we call the pound sign, number sign, or (more recently) hash(tag) actually has a newer, “official” name – the octothorpe. The origin of the name is contested, but one common account claims that the name was derived from the old Norse word thorpe, which means village or farm. In this explanation, a # represented a village surrounded by eight fields and was originally used in mapmaking.

6. Ampersand used to be a letter

The ampersand used to be the 27th letter in the English alphabet and denoted “and”. When children recited the alphabet, they would finish with, “Z and, per se, and.” This gradually became slurred into one word, which we call “ampersand.” Also, while we associate it with the word “and,” the two have different usages. The symbol & is used to mean a closer relationship between two things. So, if we see “&” between the names of two people in a credits page, it means they worked together to complete whatever they were credited with. On the other hand, putting “and” between their names means that they worked separately on the project.

7. The dollar sign used to be a peso

The dollar sign is also a type of punctuation, although we may not normally think of it as such. Interestingly, the dollar sign we know and love is actually a shortened form of the Spanish peso. American currency was initially modeled after the common world currency of the time – the peso – or the Spanish dollar. It was abbreviated as Ps, but people began dropping the curved part of the P, so that only the vertical line and the s remained. The line and the s merged together and the s grew taller, becoming the $ we are familiar with today.

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