From exclamation to em dash, did you know the origins of these punctuations?

Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat and wordsmith par excellence will dissect words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2023, 5:25 PM

It’s not often that you derive a column from a Twitter thread. But though it’s a first for me, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to a tweeter who calls himself (or herself) “The Cultural Tutor” for much of what follows a disquisition on the origins of punctuation marks.

One of the most essential punctuation marks is the Full Stop. Without it, sentences would run on into each other and be difficult to tell apart, impeding our understanding. Just as spaces separated words, sentences were demarcated by the full stop, invented in the 3rd century BC by the Alexandrian scholar Aristophanes, who was the chief librarian of the famous library in that Egyptian port city.

The Colon is also said to have originated with Aristophanes as a single middot (·) until it assumed the more familiar double form (:) used to indicate a medium-length pause. The colon has been around in English for centuries, but its modern usage is more extensive: for instance, it serves to provide examples like this, and it is so much easier to introduce lists with a colon. The Semicolon is used as an intermediary between the full stop and the colon to connect two thoughts related by meaning but not syntax.

The idea of the comma (,) as a pause in speech, originates, like the colon, with Aristophanes' middot. But the Cultural Tutor tells us that the comma itself took the form of a slash (/) known as the virgula suspensiva during the Middle Ages. That “/” was reshaped into the “,” by the 17th century.

And then we have Parentheses () throughout this article. Their name refers to the Ancient Greek rhetorical concept to describe the inclusion of supplementary information in the middle of a speech. They serve to provide additional explanatory material that supplements the main information in a sentence (like this).

Does this raise some questions in your mind? No one really knows where the Question Mark (?) came from, but we are all familiar with the exclamation mark (!). It was probably derived from the Latin phrase “io”, which was an expression of joy that medieval writers placed at the end of sentences for emphasis. Eventually the I was placed above the O and it became an ! So enjoy!

The Hyphen (-) was first used like this ( ‿ )by the grammarian Dionysius Thrax in 100 BC, before proper letter spacing, to indicate that two words should be read together. Its purpose was the formation of compound words. Then, during the Medieval Era, with the formal introduction of letter spacing, it was used to connect words in handwritten manuscripts that had been incorrectly spaced. At this point it was still written as ‿ or sometimes as ⸗. But when Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, those forms became untenable, since printing type had to be set in a straight line and the ‿ was “sublinear” (i.e. it appeared below the line of letters). This is why Gutenberg moved the connection sign to the middle of the line and the hyphen (-) as we know it today was born.

The Dash is not exactly the same as the hyphen, though the two are often confused. A hyphen is really a short dash (-) to link two words but a dash is longer (– versus -) and serves to separate words; it is often seen as serving a similar purpose to the parenthesis. The dash has a different origin from the hyphen – it may have originated as a sentence terminator, like a full stop, and acquired its present use later – but there is no doubt about its usefulness. Printers differentiate between the “em dash” and the “en dash”: the shorter “en dash” is approximately the length of the letter N, and the longer “em dash” the length of the letter M. The shorter en dash (–) is used to mark ranges and has the meaning “to” in phrases like “the Dubai–Sharjah highway,” while the longer em dash (—) is used to separate extra information and usually takes a space on either side.

Time for me to dash off!

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