Lesson 1: Mini History of Punctuation


Early punctuation was more related to speaking than to reading. Latin texts were originally written without spaces between words. Punctuation marks began as a guide to reading texts aloud, and word spaces were finally introduced around the eighth century BCE. Early Old English texts needed marks to indicate when the speaker should pause to give emphasis or indications of where to breathe.


Because Old English texts were handwritten and because there were not yet any standards for punctuation during the Old English period (about 800-1100), it is not surprising that there was great variability in the punctuation used. Although some scribes used no punctuation at all, most used the point (a period) to mark a rhetorical break of some kind or a suggestion for where to breathe when reading aloud. Points were written on the line or above the line. Semicolons indicated longer breaks, and punctus elevatus, looking something like our modern comma, marked a shorter break. Question marks (punctus interrogativus) were sometimes used, but not required, in questions.


Spaces occurred between words in compounds, between prefixes and suffixes and the roots or words to which they were attached, and sometimes between syllables. Prepositions, pronouns, and adverbs were typically attached to following words, and word breaks at the end of a line were often at syllable breaks, sometimes marked with a hyphen, sometimes not. Proper names were not capitalized, and although some scribes capitalized the first letter of the word beginning a sentence, not all did. Nouns were often written with the determiners and prepositions they formed constituents with.


Activity: Take a look at some examples of old printed texts in English to see some of these techniques.  Here’s one, The Leechbook of Bald. It was an Old English medical text probably compiled in the ninth-century, possibly under the influence of Alfred the Great‘s educational reforms. And here’s a link to a great many other Old English manuscripts.