A history of punctuation

We have had interesting discussions in the past on this blog about the use of language. This New Yorker article by Adrienne Raphel titled A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age discusses the evolution of punctuation over time and the strong feelings that it generates between purists and those who are more tolerant of contemporary modifications.

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” [linguist David Crystal] writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second view is that punctuation is essential, not only to avoid ambiguity but also because it “shows our identity as educated people.” Crystal walks the reader through the history of punctuation, from scriptura continua—that is, words written without spaces between them—to the more punctuated present. In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, “camel case” (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system.

Crystal says that people who view with alarm developments like the abbreviations used in texting should calm down, because language is always being reinvented and we do not need to have a single system because often people adopt two or more conventions to use in different contexts.

“The big thing about language is that it always changes,” Crystal told me. “Since the Internet came along, it has never moved so fast.” This has helped to make finger-wagging very popular. Lynne Truss’s 2004 best-seller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” for instance, cried that “everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference.” In 2008, Crystal published “Txtng: The Gr8 Db8,” a response to what he describes as the “moral panic” that had been spreading in the United Kingdom and the United States since around 2000, when texting became an everyday experience. A 2007 Daily Mail article titled “I h8 txt msgs” had declared that “SMS vandals” were “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed “innovations” of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.

He advises what he refers to “pragmatic tolerance” to the rules of punctuation that are currently in existence: “Know them, so that you can break them, when they should be broken.”


  1. doublereed says

    I’ve actually seen some things suggesting that the internet has made us significantly better writers in general. Back in the day, people wouldn’t really write much unless it was for their job or maybe personal letters. But writing is the primary method of communication on the internet, and it is constantly, unrelentingly scrutinized by other people. So people in general are just writing more than they ever have, and thinking about how they write and communicate more in print.

  2. John Morales says


    Not if you don’t care about needing to rely on context to resolve ambiguity.


  3. John Morales says

    Sheesh. Just looked at the featured article.

    People don’t know why they get so upset about language,” David Crystal told me recently, over Skype from his home in Wales. “ ‘Potato’s,’ with an apostrophe ‘S,’ ” he offered, as an example of the kind of thing that drives some people batty, “but you ask them, ‘Why are you so upset?’, and they can’t answer you.”

    What?! I could’ve told him right away: it confuses a possessive with a plural, which is an indication of ignorance.

  4. Trickster Goddess says

    Crystal says that people who view with alarm developments like the abbreviations used in texting should calm down

    And those are the same people who wouldn’t think twice about saying something like, “When the lab tech has the results of the DNA test, fax them to me ASAP,” which contains 5 abbreviations.

  5. John Morales says

    Trickster Goddess, facsimile technology is obsolescent; these days we email.

    Also, acronyms are words in themselves, though they may be formed from initialisms. Might as well note that laser should be LASER.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    Lab is an abbreviation for laboratory. Tech is an abbreviation for technician. I’m sure a couple of generations ago there were people alarmed that language was being destroyed by people not using the full and proper words for these things.

  7. StevoR says

    @6. John Morales : .. And radar, RADAR too.

    I guess as longaz u can haz understandin’ o wot is ment ya?

    I can see both sides of this issue and think a lot of it depends on the context in which you use the language -- there are times and places for casual, colloquial forms and txtspeak and also for the full formal, elaborate rules being adhered to -oh dear can’t end with a preposition (that the right word?) can I?

  8. John Morales says

    Trickster Goddess:

    Lab is an abbreviation for laboratory. Tech is an abbreviation for technician.

    Lab is also an abbreviation for Labrador (a breed of dog) and tech is also an abbreviation for technical and for technology.

    (Again: ambiguities need context for resolution, but are avoidable)


    […] oh dear can’t end with a preposition (that the right word?) can I?

    Well, it’s a pointless grammatical rule, but then grammar is neither lexicon (e.g. abbreviations) nor orthography (e.g. punctuation).

  9. Bruce says

    Where would we be if we decided that to end a sentence with a preposition was NOT something, up with which we would not put?

  10. Holms says

    No mention of the only reasonable position in this matter: the middle ground known as ‘vary your punctuation according to the need.’ Texts and instant chat programs sacrifice grammar, spelling, and formatting for brevity; important things like job applications do the reverse. Easy.

  11. StevoR says

    @ ^ purrs : Oscar Wilde -- one helluva great writer -- famously spent all morning adding a comma and then all afternnon deciding to take it out.

    Mind you, I’m no Wilde nor is anybody else here with all due respect to everyone else here. Wilde’s are few and far between indeed. (Of the individual there is but one natch -- but metaphorically.

  12. says

    Crystal is a good writer and I’ve read (and own) several of his books. He is right about a lot of things including the history of abbreviation. Before the printing press, books were hand copied and paper was a precious commodity. Writers regularly abbreviated or hyphenated words to make them fit within limited space on the page, rather than writing the entire word on the next page and leaving a gap. Note this page from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:


    However, Crystal is also a bit of a chauvinist toward the English language. In his book “English As A Global Language”, he argues English is no worse than other languages grammatically (definitely disagree). His view can be summed up, “We’re already using it, so everyone should.”

  13. Kilian Hekhuis says

    @leftover1under, #17: “he argues English is no worse than other languages grammatically (definitely disagree)” -- so why is English worse? What other languages have you compared it to?

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