awater.gifHow did you go with this task?

Look first of all to see

  • how paragraphs divide the text into smaller subtopics
  • where full stops are inserted to cut text into sentence blocks
  • where capital letters are needed for proper nouns as well as at the start of sentences
  • how commas and semicolons indicate pauses or a sequence of items in a list
  • how a colon indicates 'as follows...'
  • how dashes and brackets indicate afterthoughts or additional information that is not part of the main sentence
  • how abbreviations are indicated
  • how an apostrophe indicates possession

The earliest writing had no capitalization, no spaces and no punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics (for example, writing was initially used for recording business transactions). Until the eighteenth century, punctuation was principally an aid to reading aloud; after that time its development was as a mechanism for ensuring that the text made sense when read silently.

The oldest document that uses punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century B.C.). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation. The Greeks were using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots - usually two (c.f. the modern colon) or three - in around the fifth century B.C. Greek playwrights (e.g. Euripides and Aristophanes) used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama: 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 full stops (indicated by a raised dot). The Romans (circa 1st century BC) also adopted symbols to indicate pauses.

The use of punctuation was not standardized until after the invention of printing. Credit for introducing a standard system is generally given to Aldus Manutius and his grandson: they popularized the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, invented the semicolon, made occasional use of parentheses, and created the modern comma by lowering the virgule.