Small things can make a big difference. This is especially true for the pivotal role of punctuation marks in language and communication. In the past, reading written texts wasn’t as easy as it is today. Aside from the absence of lowercase letters, there was no punctuation mark nor space in between words. You just had to figure your way into and out such a long thread of capital letters. ILOVECOOKINGPASTAANDYOU; how did we arrive at a point when a small comma could change that statement from cannibalism to an amorous confession?
There are over a million words in the English language. We only need to know about less than 2 percent of the English dictionary for us to be proficient in reading and writing. As words can be multi-faceted in definitions and usage, little grammatical symbols strategically placed along sentences help give meaning to what we say. But the story wasn’t always this way.
In the early days of written language, symbols denoted words. Since the words were contained and separated in individual imager vessels, there was no need to place spaces and marks between them.
The Ancient Greeks, however, did not follow this symbolic language. Their writing system was adapted from the Phoenicians who journeyed from Lebanon. These maritime traders and merchants had a phonetic writing system instead. They use letters instead of symbols. The Greek writing system wasn’t ambiguous, unlike the syllabic and logographic language of that of the Mayan and Chinese.
As useful as their written language is in conveying speech, it lacked spaces and symbols that distinguished words from other words and sentences from another sentence. Readers wouldn’t understand the written text on the first read, much more articulate it eloquently.
At the end of the 3rd century BC, symbols, the precedents of modern punctuation marks, were first used in texts to separate the words and add necessary pauses in between. This became popularized as mainly for the purpose of speaking. The Greek ancestors of the modern punctuation marks were made to indicate how much text each mark separated. For example, comma divided words and phrases, colon separated clauses, while period meant the end of a sentence. The spaces between words weren’t a convention until around the 7th and 8th centuries when Irish and Scottish monks used them in passages. It was also during the latter century when the lower case letters became part of the written alphabet.
Things were simpler when you wrote by hand. It took a while before punctuation marks became a convention for printing press. And it took an Italian typographer and his grandson to catalyze the standardization of punctuation symbols into print. During the 15th century, Aldus Pius Manutius was the first to use comma and semicolons in publishing. When his grandson, Aldo Manutius the Younger, became in-charge of the family business, he took a page from how the Ancient Greeks used symbols. He cataloged the use of commas, colons, and periods, with new members to the list: quotation marks, exclamation points, apostrophe, and question marks.
When punctuation marks became the standard, everybody started using them. So much so that they were needlessly overusing the symbols. Today, we have lexicographers in the names of Henry and Francis Fowler to thank for codifying the proper and correct use of punctuation symbols at the start of the 20th century.
Punctuation marks, small as they may be, can change the entire meaning of a statement. When used incorrectly, the symbols can alter the intended meaning of the sentence and can lead to misunderstandings.
In the example “I love cooking pasta and you,” different comma placements will change the meaning of the sentence. For example, “I love cooking, pasta, and you” means the speaker is fond of the activity cooking, of the food pasta, and the receiver of the statement. When we place the comma in between pasta and and only, we have “I love cooking pasta, and you.” The speaker is enamored with preparing pasta as he or she is with the receiver. When we omit the comma altogether, we have a rather cannibalistic statement that is a far cry from love for the other person.
In a similar manner, “You’re leaving me” is an imperative statement. The speaker declares that the other person is moving away from him or her. Meanwhile, “You’re leaving me?” means that the speaker is asking if the other person is deserting him or her. The small difference seems negligible, but it can spark confusion and argument between people. Therefore, the correct use of punctuation marks is important for both syntactical and elocutionary purposes of language.
Learn more about punctuation marks and their uses from the following sample guides and charts.
Avoid some of the common punctuation errors with the following tips.
Subordinates are phrases although, because, before, unless, however, even though. When they are placed in the middle of sentences, they usually do not need a comma. However, when placed at the start of the sentence, subordinates need a comma to support the other clause.
These are the phrases for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Conjunctions usually need commas to help them carry a complete sentence. That is when they are in between independent and dependent clauses. Yet, there are times when commas aren’t necessary. These are when the conjunction is adjoining a word or phrase that isn’t a clause.
Apostrophes are like superscript commas. They are used to denote ownership or possession and are typically followed by the lower case s. Don’t use apostrophes when you mean the plurality of most things, except when you mean the plural of lowercase letters such as a’s and b’s, and of abbreviations.
When you need to add extra information to the text, you can rely on a pair of parentheses. It can enclose word, phrases, or sentences. But where do we place the period mark? When you use the enclosed text to enhance the meaning of the sentence, and the text doesn’t exist on its own, place the period outside the closing parenthetical symbol. However, when the closed text can stand as a sentence on its own, dot the sentence outside the inside parenthetical mark.
Punctuations help in making us understand language. It makes for better communication. Therefore, we should start learning how to use these marks correctly to communicate the meaning we intended.