Punctuation marks are symbols that indicate the structure and organization of written language
Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols . It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media, such as magnetic tape audio.Writing most likely...

, as well as intonation
Intonation (linguistics)
In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody...

 and pauses to be observed when reading aloud.

In written English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentence
Sentence (linguistics)
In the field of linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language, and often defined to indicate a grammatical unit consisting of one or more words that generally bear minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it...

s. For example, "woman, without her man, is nothing" and "woman: without her, man is nothing" have greatly different meanings, as do "eats shoots and leaves" and "eats, shoots and leaves". "King Charles
Charles I of England
Charles I was King of England, King of Scotland, and King of Ireland from 27 March 1625 until his execution in 1649. Charles engaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England, attempting to obtain royal revenue whilst Parliament sought to curb his Royal prerogative which Charles...

 walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off" is more alarming than "King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off". (For English usage, see the articles on specific punctuation marks.)

The rules of punctuation vary with language, location
Location (geography)
The terms location and place in geography are used to identify a point or an area on the Earth's surface or elsewhere. The term 'location' generally implies a higher degree of can certainty than "place" which often has an ambiguous boundary relying more on human/social attributes of place identity...

, register
Register (linguistics)
In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, when speaking in a formal setting an English speaker may be more likely to adhere more closely to prescribed grammar, pronounce words ending in -ing with a velar nasal...

 and time
Time is a part of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change such as the motions of objects....

 and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author's (or editor's) choice. Tachygraphic language forms, such as those used in online chat
Online chat
Online chat may refer to any kind of communication over the Internet, that offers an instantaneous transmission of text-based messages from sender to receiver, hence the delay for visual access to the sent message shall not hamper the flow of communications in any of the directions...

 and text messages
Text messaging
Text messaging, or texting, refers to the exchange of brief written text messages between fixed-line phone or mobile phone and fixed or portable devices over a network...

, may have wildly different rules.


The first writing systems were mostly logographic
A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme . This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.Logograms are often commonly known also as "ideograms"...

 and/or syllabic
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...

, for example Chinese and Maya script
Maya script
The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered...

, and they do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single glyph, so spacing does not help as much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts. Disambiguation and emphasis can easily be communicated without punctuation by employing a separate written form distinct from the spoken form of the language that uses slightly different phraseology. Even today, formal written modern English differs subtly from spoken English because not all emphasis and disambiguation is possible to convey in print, even with punctuation.

The earliest alphabet
An alphabet is a standard set of letters—basic written symbols or graphemes—each of which represents a phoneme in a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic...

ic writing had no capitalization
Capitalization is writing a word with its first letter as a majuscule and the remaining letters in minuscules . This of course only applies to those writing systems which have a case distinction...

, no spaces, no vowels and few punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics (e.g., writing used for recording business transactions). Punctuation is historically an aid to reading aloud (vis George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60...


The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele
Mesha Stele
The Mesha Stele is a black basalt stone bearing an inscription by the 9th century BC ruler Mesha of Moab in Jordan....

 (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.

The Greeks
The Greeks, also known as the Hellenes , are a nation and ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus and neighboring regions. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world....

 were using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots - usually two (cf. the modern colon
Colon (punctuation)
The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line.-Usage:A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark....

) or three - in around the 5th century BC. Greek playwrights such as Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 and Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

 used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...

: this essentially helped the play's cast to know when to pause. In particular, they used three different symbols to divide speeches, known as commas (indicated by a centred dot), colons (indicated by a dot on the base line), and periods or full stops (indicated by a raised dot).

The Romans
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 (circa 1st century BC) also adopted symbols to indicate pauses.

Ancient Chinese classical texts were transmitted without punctuation. However, many Warring states era bamboo texts contain the symbols 「└」 and 「▄」 indicating the end of a chapter and full stop, respectively. By the Song dynasty
Song Dynasty
The Song Dynasty was a ruling dynasty in China between 960 and 1279; it succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, and was followed by the Yuan Dynasty. It was the first government in world history to issue banknotes or paper money, and the first Chinese government to establish a...

, addition of punctuation to texts by scholars to aid comprehension became common.
Punctuation developed dramatically when large numbers of copies of the Christian Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud and the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks and an early version of initial capitals. Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome is a Christian church father, best known for translating the Bible into Latin.Saint Jerome may also refer to:*Jerome of Pavia , Bishop of Pavia...

 and his colleagues, who produced the Vulgate
The Vulgate is a late 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible. It was largely the work of St. Jerome, who was commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 to make a revision of the old Latin translations...

 translation of the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

 into Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, developed an early system (circa 400 AD); this was considerably improved on by Alcuin
Alcuin of York or Ealhwine, nicknamed Albinus or Flaccus was an English scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria. He was born around 735 and became the student of Archbishop Ecgbert at York...

. The marks included the virgule (forward slash) and dots in different locations; the dots were centred in the line, raised or in groups.

With the invention of moveable type in Europe began an increase of printed material. "The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required." The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has also been attributed to Aldus Manutius
Aldus Manutius
Aldus Pius Manutius , the Latinised name of Aldo Manuzio —sometimes called Aldus Manutius, the Elder to distinguish him from his grandson, Aldus Manutius, the Younger—was an Italian humanist who became a printer and publisher when he founded the Aldine Press at Venice.His publishing legacy includes...

 and his grandson. They have been credited with popularizing the practice of ending sentences with the colon
Colon (punctuation)
The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line.-Usage:A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark....

 or full stop
Full stop
A full stop is the punctuation mark commonly placed at the end of sentences. In American English, the term used for this punctuation is period. In the 21st century, it is often also called a dot by young people...

, inventing the semicolon
The semicolon is a punctuation mark with several uses. The Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder established the practice of using the semicolon to separate words of opposed meaning and to indicate interdependent statements. "The first printed semicolon was the work of ... Aldus Manutius"...

, making occasional use of parentheses and creating the modern comma
Comma (punctuation)
The comma is a punctuation mark. It has the same shape as an apostrophe or single closing quotation mark in many typefaces, but it differs from them in being placed on the baseline of the text. Some typefaces render it as a small line, slightly curved or straight but inclined from the vertical, or...

 by lowering the virgule. By 1566, "Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax.

By the 19th century, punctuation in the western world had evolved "to classify the marks hierarchically, in terms of weight". Cecil Hartley's poem identifies their relative values:
The stop point out, with truth, the time of pause
A sentence doth require at ev'ry clause.
At ev'ry comma, stop while one you count;
At semicolon, two is the amount;
A colon doth require the time of three;
The period four, as learned men agree.

The use of punctuation was not standardised until after the invention of printing. According to the 1885 edition of The American Printer, the importance of punctuation was noted in various sayings by children such as:
Charles the First walked and talked
Half an hour after his head was cut off.

With a semi-colon and a comma added it reads:
Charles the First walked and talked;
Half an hour after, his head was cut off.

Shortly after the invention of printing, the necessity of stops or pauses in sentences for the guidance of the reader produced the colon and full point. In process of time, the comma was added, which was then merely a perpendicular line, proportioned to the body of the letter. These three points were the only ones used until the close of the fifteenth century, when Aldo Manuccio gave a better shape to the comma, and added the semicolon; the comma denoting the shortest pause, the semicolon next, then the colon, and the full point terminating the sentence. The marks of interrogation and admiration were introduced many years after.

The standards and limitations of evolving technologies have exercised further pragmatic influences. For example, minimisation of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of expensive non-reusable ribbon as did a capital letter.

Conventional styles of English punctuation

There are two major styles of punctuation in English: American or traditional punctuation; and British or logical punctuation. These two styles differ mainly in the way in which they handle quotation marks.

Other languages

Other European languages use much the same punctuation as English. The similarity is so strong that the few variations may confuse a native English reader. Quotation marks are particularly variable across European languages. For example, in French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

 and Russian
Russian language
Russian is a Slavic language used primarily in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics...

, quotes would appear as: « Je suis fatigué. » (in French, each "double punctuation", as the guillemet, requires a non-breaking space
Non-breaking space
In computer-based text processing and digital typesetting, a non-breaking space or no-break space is a variant of the space character that prevents an automatic line break at its position. In certain formats , it also prevents the “collapsing” of multiple consecutive whitespace characters into a...

; in Russian it does not).

In Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

, the question mark is written as the English semicolon, while the functions of the colon and semicolon are performed by a raised point (·), known as the ano teleia (άνω τελεία).

Spanish language
Spanish , also known as Castilian , is a Romance language in the Ibero-Romance group that evolved from several languages and dialects in central-northern Iberia around the 9th century and gradually spread with the expansion of the Kingdom of Castile into central and southern Iberia during the...

 uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of a question and the normal question mark at the end, as well as an inverted exclamation mark at the beginning of an exclamation and the normal exclamation mark at the end.

Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

, Urdu, and Persian
Persian language
Persian is an Iranian language within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. It is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and countries which historically came under Persian influence...

 languages—written from right to left—use a reversed question mark: ؟, and a reversed comma: ، . This is a modern innovation; pre-modern Arabic did not use punctuation. Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

, which is also written from right to left, uses the same characters as in English, , and ? .

Originally, Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

 had no punctuation. In the 17th century, Sanskrit and Marathi
Marathi language
Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by the Marathi people of western and central India. It is the official language of the state of Maharashtra. There are over 68 million fluent speakers worldwide. Marathi has the fourth largest number of native speakers in India and is the fifteenth most...

, both written in the Devanagari
Devanagari |deva]]" and "nāgarī" ), also called Nagari , is an abugida alphabet of India and Nepal...

 script, started using the vertical bar (|) to end a line of prose and double vertical bars (||) in verse.

Texts in Chinese
Chinese language
The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...

, Japanese
Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

, and Korean
Korean language
Korean is the official language of the country Korea, in both South and North. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in People's Republic of China. There are about 78 million Korean speakers worldwide. In the 15th century, a national writing...

 were generally left unpunctuated until the modern era. In unpunctuated texts, the grammatical structure of sentences in classical writing is inferred from context. Most punctuation marks in modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have similar functions to their English counterparts; however, they often look different and have different customary rules.

Novel punctuation marks

An international patent application
Patent application
A patent application is a request pending at a patent office for the grant of a patent for the invention described and claimed by that application. An application consists of a description of the invention , together with official forms and correspondence relating to the application...

 was filed, and published in 1992 under WO number WO9219458, for two new punctuation marks: the "question comma" and the "exclamation comma". The patent application entered into national phase exclusively with Canada, advertised as lapsing in Australia on 27 January 1994 and in Canada on 6 November 1995.

See also

  • Hebrew punctuation
    Hebrew punctuation
    Hebrew punctuation is similar to that of English and other Western languages, Modern Hebrew having imported additional punctuation marks from these languages in order to avoid the ambiguities sometimes occasioned by the relative paucity of such symbols in Biblical Hebrew.-Quotation marks:Hebrew...

  • James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher
    James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher
    "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher" is an English sentence used to demonstrate lexical ambiguity and the necessity of punctuation,which serves as a substitute for the intonation,...

    , a word puzzle in which proper punctuation must be added to give the sentence meaning
  • Japanese punctuation
    Japanese punctuation
    includes various written marks , which differ from those found in European languages, as well as some not used in formal Japanese writing but frequently found in more casual writing, such as exclamation and question marks....

  • Obelism
    Obelism is the practice of annotating manuscripts with marks set in the margins. Modern obelisms are used by editors when blue-penciling a manuscript or typescript...

    , the practice of annotating manuscripts with marks set in the margins
  • Scribal abbreviation
    Scribal abbreviation
    Scribal abbreviations are the abbreviations used by ancient and mediæval scribes writing in Latin and, later, in Greek and Old Norse...

    s, abbreviations used by ancient and medieval scribes writing in Latin
  • Terminal punctuation
    Terminal punctuation
    Terminal punctuation are punctuation marks used to identify the end of a portion of text. Terminal punctuation marks are also referred to as end marks and stops....

  • Tironian notes
    Tironian notes
    Tironian notes is a system of shorthand said to have been invented by Cicero's scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro's system consisted of about 4,000 signs, somewhat extended in classical times to 5,000 signs. In the European Medieval period, Tironian notes were taught in monasteries and the system...

    , a system of shorthand consisted of about 4,000 signs
  • Unicode symbols
    Unicode Symbols
    In computing, in addition to encoding characters for the various writing systems used throughout the World, Unicode also devotes several blocks of characters to symbols that have a well-defined place in plain text. In Unicode there is a main distinction between "scripts" and "symbols". A character...

    , characters of symbols that have a well-defined place in plain text, in computing
  • Usage
    Usage is the manner in which written and spoken language is used. H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage "defines usage as 'points of grammar, syntax, style, and the choice of words'". The Oxford Dictionary of English defines usage as "the way in which a word or phrase is normally and...

External links

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