Origins of the period

The period – punctuation mark of sentences

In the post on the use of periods in texting, I noted that the period, or the full stop as it is commonly called in British English, has been around since the early 1600s to signal the termination of a sentence (just as a capital letter signals the start).

The previous post deals with punctuation matters. As defined in Britannica.com, punctuation, as well as graphics more broadly, is “the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to understanding and correct . . . reading of handwritten and printed texts.” The word punctuation derives from the Latin punctus, meaning “point.”

This is an apt beginning to a discussion of the period, often referred to as “a point.” Ancient cultures began as primarily oral literary traditions, and when they began recording their literature, it was on parchment, created from the skins of animals, like sheep, goats, and calves, that were processed in order to write on them. Because it was an expensive and time-consuming process, all the available surface of the parchment was used with the inscriptions written continuously. Parchment was even reused – the older writing scraped away and the new writing written in the effaced space. (Traces of the earlier writing often remained, which created word palimpsest for a manuscript reused in this way.)

Though persuasive speech in early Greece and Rome was more important than written language, manuscripts prepared for oral delivery began to use diacritical marks to emphasize pauses. For example, to relieve an unbroken stream of text, Aristophanes suggested annotating documents with dots of ink aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (·) of each line. As Keith Houston remarks, Aristophanes’ ‘subordinate,’ ‘intermediate,’ and ‘full’ points corresponded to pauses of increasing length, formal units of speech called the commacolon and periodos. (These marked pauses in speaking, not grammatical boundaries, so they do not exactly correlate with the modern punctuation marks.)

Alberto Manguel writes in his essay “Point of Order” that the period as we know it did not come into use until the Italian Renaissance. Earlier, scribes had begun to develop symbols to indicate the unity of sense by using letters jutting into margins (5th C) or a dot or punctus (8th C) to indicate a pause within a sentence and at the conclusion of a sentence.

The period gained its present use during the establishment of printing. Maria Khodorkovsky cites Aldus Manutius the Elder, an Italian printer and publisher of the 15th century, as being credited with standardizing the use of the period, as well as several other elements of punctuation, such as the semicolon and the comma. Yet, Manguel writes that it was his grandson, Aldus Manutius the Younger, in a typographical punctuation manual of 1566, who defined the full stop. Because it tells us when to stop, Manguel call the period “the unsung legislator of our writing systems,” “[D]iminutive as a mote of dust, a mere peck of the pen, a crumb on the keyboard, the full stop.”

Punctuation as a system developed erratically and is distinctive to language and culture. There are even differences in the rules between British English and American English; for example in the handling of punctuation with quotation marks. As we’ve discussed in this blog, punctuation is a function of written language, and the rules especially apply in formal contexts, including academic, business, governmental, and other professional communications. Richard Norquist notes that the period is the most popular mark because most of us state or declare our thoughts more often than we question or exclaim. However, rules for punctuation do not apply in speech or are less important or rigid in informal contexts – and in texting and tweeting and other social media, the period now carries emotional weight, either overly formal or possibly hostile. Yet, Manguel, quoting an anonymous 1680 English teacher, says the period is ”a Note of perfect Sense, and of a perfect Sentence.”

(References: Britannica.com, “Punctuation”; Houston, “Mysterious Origins of Punctuation”; Manguel, “Point of Order”; Khodorkovsky, “Brief History of English Punctuation”; Norquist, “Punctuation – Definition”)

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