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Punctuation is "the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts." Another description is: "The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks."
In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example: "woman, without her man, is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of men), and "woman: without her, man is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of women) have very different meanings; as do "eats shoots and leaves" (which means the subject consumes plant growths) and "eats, shoots, and leaves" (which means the subject eats first, then fires a weapon, and then leaves the scene). The sharp differences in meaning are produced by the simple differences in punctuation within the example pairs, especially the latter.
The rules of punctuation vary with language, location, register and time and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author's (or editor's) choice. Tachygraphic language forms, such as those used in online chat and text messages, may have wildly different rules. For English usage, see the articles on specific punctuation marks.
The first writing systems were either logographic or syllabic—for example, Chinese and Maya script—which do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single glyph, so spacing does not help as much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts. Disambiguation and emphasis can easily be communicated without punctuation by employing a separate written form distinct from the spoken form of the language that uses slightly different phraseology. Even today, formal written modern English differs subtly from spoken English because not all emphasis and disambiguation is possible to convey in print, even with punctuation.
Ancient Chinese classical texts were transmitted without punctuation. However, many Warring states era bamboo texts contain the symbols ⟨└⟩ and ⟨▄⟩ indicating the end of a chapter and full stop, respectively. By the Song dynasty, addition of punctuation to texts by scholars to aid comprehension became common.
The earliest alphabetic writing had no capitalization, no spaces, no vowels and few punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics (e.g., writing used for recording business transactions). Punctuation is historically an aid to reading aloud.
The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.
Most texts were still written in scriptura continua, that is without any separation between words. However, the Greeks were sporadically using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots - usually two (cf. the modern colon) or three - in around the 5th century b.c. as an aid in the oral delivery of texts. Greek playwrights such as 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 a system (called thésis) of a single dot (punctus) placed at varying heights to mark up speeches at rhetorical divisions:
The Romans (ca. 1st century b.c.) also occasionally used symbols to indicate pauses, but the Greek system—under the name distinctiones—prevailed by the a.d. 4th century as reported by Donatus and Isidore of Seville (7th century). Also, texts were sometimes lain out per capitula, that is, every sentence had its own separate line. Diples were used, but by the late period these often degenerated into comma-shaped marks.
Punctuation developed dramatically when large numbers of copies of the Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud, so the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks (diple, paragraphos, simplex ductus), and an early version of initial capitals (littera notabilior). St. Jerome and his colleagues, who made the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (ca. a.d. 400), employed a layout system based on established practices for teaching the speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero. Under his layout per cola et commata every sense-unit was indented and given its own line. This layout was solely used for biblical manuscripts during the 5th-9th centuries but was abandoned in favor of punctuation.
In the 7th-8th centuries Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes, whose native languages were not derived from Latin, added more visual cues to render texts more intelligible. Irish scribes introduced the practice of word separation. Likewise, insular scribes adopted the distinctiones system while adapting it for minuscule script (so as to be more prominent) by using not differing height but rather a differing number of marks—aligned horizontally (or sometimes triangularly)—to signify a pause's value: one mark for a minor pause, two for a medium one, and three for a major. Most common were the punctus, a comma-shaped mark, and a 7-shaped mark (comma positura), often used in combination. The same marks could be used in the margin to mark off quotations.
In the late 8th century a different system emerged in the Carolingian empire. Originally indicating how the voice should be modulated when chanting the liturgy, the positurae migrated into any text meant to be read aloud, and then to all manuscripts. Positurae first reached England in the late 10th century probably during the Benedictine reform movement, but was not adopted until after the Norman conquest. The original positurae were the punctus, punctus elevatus, punctus versus, and punctus interrogativus, but a fifth symbol, the punctus flexus, was added in the 10th century to indicate a pause of a value between the punctus and punctus elevatus. In the late 11th/early 12th century the punctus versus disappeared and was taken over by the simple punctus (now with two distinct values).
The late Middle Ages saw the addition of the virgula suspensiva (slash or slash with a midpoint dot) which was often used in conjunction with the punctus for different types of pauses. Direct quotations were marked with marginal diples, as in Antiquity, but from at least the 12th century scribes also began entering diples (sometimes double) within the column of text.
From the invention of moveable type in Europe in the 1450s the amount of printed material and a readership for it began to increase. "The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required." The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has also been attributed to the Venetian printers Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They have been credited with popularizing the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses and creating the modern comma by lowering the virgule. By 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax.
By the 19th century, punctuation in the western world had evolved "to classify the marks hierarchically, in terms of weight". Cecil Hartley's poem identifies their relative values:
The use of punctuation was not standardised until after the invention of printing. According to the 1885 edition of The American Printer, the importance of punctuation was noted in various sayings by children such as:
With a semi-colon and a comma added it reads:
In a 19th-century manual of typography, Thomas MacKellar writes:
Shortly after the invention of printing, the necessity of stops or pauses in sentences for the guidance of the reader produced the colon and full point. In process of time, the comma was added, which was then merely a perpendicular line, proportioned to the body of the letter. These three points were the only ones used until the close of the fifteenth century, when Aldo Manuccio gave a better shape to the comma, and added the semicolon; the comma denoting the shortest pause, the semicolon next, then the colon, and the full point terminating the sentence. The marks of interrogation and admiration were introduced many years after.
The standards and limitations of evolving technologies have exercised further pragmatic influences. For example, minimisation of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of expensive non-reusable ribbon as did a capital letter.
There are two major styles of punctuation in English: American or traditional punctuation; and British or logical punctuation. These two styles differ mainly in the way in which they handle quotation marks.
Other European languages use much the same punctuation as English. The similarity is so strong that the few variations may confuse a native English reader. Quotation marks are particularly variable across European languages. For example, in French and Russian, quotes would appear as: « Je suis fatigué. » (in French, each "double punctuation", as the guillemet, requires a non-breaking space; in Russian it does not).
Spanish uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of a question and the normal question mark at the end, as well as an inverted exclamation mark at the beginning of an exclamation and the normal exclamation mark at the end.
Armenian uses several punctuation marks of its own. The full stop is represented by a colon, and vice versa; the exclamation mark is represented by a diagonal similar to a tilde (~), while the question mark resembles the "at" symbol.
Arabic, Urdu, and Persian languages—written from right to left—use a reversed question mark: ؟, and a reversed comma: ، . This is a modern innovation; pre-modern Arabic did not use punctuation. Hebrew, which is also written from right to left, uses the same characters as in English, "," and "?" .
Originally, Sanskrit had no punctuation. In the 17th century, Sanskrit and Marathi, both written in the Devanagari script, started using the vertical bar (।) to end a line of prose and double vertical bars (॥) in verse.
Punctuation was not used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing until the adoption of punctuation from the West in the late 19th and early 20th century. In unpunctuated texts, the grammatical structure of sentences in classical writing is inferred from context. Most punctuation marks in modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have similar functions to their English counterparts; however, they often look different and have different customary rules.
In the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, ...), :- is sometimes used in place of colon or after a subheading. Its origin is unclear, but could be a remnant of the British Raj. Another punctuation common in the Indian Subcontinent for writing money amounts is the use of /- or /= after the number. For example, Rs. 20/- or Rs. 20/= implies 20 rupees whole.
An international patent application was filed, and published in 1992 under WO number WO9219458, for two new punctuation marks: the “question comma” and the “exclamation comma”. The question comma is a comma in place of the dot underneath the curve of a question mark, while the exclamation comma has a comma in place of the point at the bottom of an exclamation mark. These were intended for use as question and exclamation marks within a sentence, a function for which normal question and exclamation marks can also be used, but which may be considered obsolescent. The patent application entered into national phase exclusively with Canada, advertised as lapsing in Australia on 27 January 1994 and in Canada on 6 November 1995.
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