Saturday, March 30, 2013 Solving the punctuation puzzle [history and usage]


[am-per-sand, am-per-sand]

This strange punctuation mark has a fascinating past. The ampersand emerged over 2,000 years ago as the Latin word et meaning "and." The cursive writing of Latin scribes often connected the "e" and "t," giving rise to the shape of the ampersand. 

The name did not appear until the 1830s when "&" was the 27th letter of the English alphabet. The mark concluded the alphabet with "X, Y, Z, and per se and" with "and per se" meaning "and by itself." This final phrase was slurred by English school children during recitation and reborn as "ampersand."



This punctuation mark is not to be confused with the end of the large intestine. Grammatically, the colon marks a major division in a sentence. 

The sign may also precede lists or summations or even help to categorize numbers, like separating hours from minutes as in "5:30." The word comes from the Greek kolon meaning "limb" or a "part of verse."



This punctuation mark, called "dangerously addictive" by Virginia Woolf, unites two independent clauses with a common thematic tie: "Leonard had nothing against tigers; he grew up with cats." 

In this example the two clauses would be perfectly permissible sentences on their own, but because they both relate to the same person and the same affection for felines, they are appropriately linked with a semi-colon. The addition of the prefix semi-, meaning "part," to the Greek root kolon meaning "part of verse" makes the semi-colon quite literally a part of a part.



Aside from the period, the comma is the most common punctuation mark in English. The word is derived from the Greek koptein meaning "to cut off," fitting for our beloved comma's use in marking pauses within sentences and separating terms in a list. 

The mark was invented by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius in the late 1400s, a time when the slash mark signified a pause. Manutius lowered the slash mark in relation to the line of text and curved it slightly around the final letter. This freed the slash mark to indicate a comparison and simultaneously gave birth to the comma.



"I think I love you..." If you've ever been confronted with this maddeningly indeterminate end to a sentence, then you're no stranger to the effects of the ellipsis

From the Greek word elleipsein meaning "to fall short," this punctuation mark indicates an omission or suppression of letters or words. Oftentimes readers can infer which terms are replaced by the ellipsis, but in certain settings there's just no way to know.



In English, the apostrophe is the agent of contraction and possession, shortening words by replacing letters as in: can't for "can(no)t," and designating ownership as in: "the iguana is Lisa's." 

The word came to English in the late 1500s as a direct loan from the Middle French apostrophe meaning "aversion" or "turning away." Following its induction into English, the symbol enjoyed extreme popularity in written text, the result of a centuries-long trend to imitate French culture.

Quotation marks

Also called "inverted commas," quotation marks set off dialogue, quoted material, titles of short works, and definitions by demarcating of a section of text: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," said Dorothy, as she opened the door. 

Before mechanized printing, quotations were indicated by identifying the speaker or using a different typeface, like italics. At the time single quotation marks indicated a pithy comment or quip. But by the 1740s, mechanical printing had taken off and printers adopted quotation marks to indicate speech.



The hyphen is a short line used to connect the parts of a compound word. It may also be used to indicate a connection between the parts of a word that has been divided for other reasons like a line break. 

The term is derived from the Ancient Greek hypo + hen literally translated as "under one." 

Historically, the mark was used to unite words or syllables, most likely indicating the way phrases were meant to be sung by Greek and Roman bards. Hyphens are still used today in choral notation to indicate connected syllables.

Question mark

Also called the "interrogation mark," the question mark is, in English, the punctuation mark placed after a sentence to indicate a question. In Spanish an inverted question mark is placed at the beginning of an inquisitive sentence as well. 

There is much speculation as to the origin of the question mark, but most attribute its invention to Alcuin of York, leading scholar and teacher in the court of Charlemagne. 

In the 8th century, Alcuin indicated questions in his writing with a mark like "a lightning flash, striking from left to right," according to language writer Lynne Truss.

Exclamation point

This forceful punctuation mark indicates a moment of high volume or excitement at the end of a sentence. Though there is no consensus as to the origin of the exclamation point, many believe that it is an abbreviated composite of the Latin word for "joy," io

After centuries of hurried handwriting, the "i" became a line, placed over the "o," written quickly as a dot. The exclamation point was introduced into English in the 15th century as a "note of admiration."



This hybrid [double] punctuation mark is the only symbol on our list that was born in the USA. The interrobang combines a question mark and an exclamation point to indicate a mixture of query and interjection or shock, as in: "She said what!?" 

In the case of the interrobang, both word and symbol are portmanteaus in that the word bang was used for "exclamation point" in 1950s secretarial vernacular. Similarly, the question mark is also known as the "interrogation mark."
The beginnings of punctuation lie in classical rhetoric--the art of oratory. Back in ancient Greece and Rome, when a speech was prepared in writing, marks were used to indicate where--and for how long--a speaker should pause.

These pauses (and eventually the marks themselves) were named after the sections they divided. The longest section was called a period, defined by Aristotle as "a portion of a speech that has in itself a beginning and an end." The shortest pause was a comma (literally, "that which is cut off"), and midway between the two was the colon--a "limb," "strophe," or "clause."


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