Your guide to the history and nuance of punctuation

Everything you wanted to know about four common, and not so common, punctuation marks, but were afraid to ask.

How often do you consider the origins of the typical, and atypical, punctuation in your prose? Where do they derive—and what’s up with ampersands?

On punctuation, Oscar Wilde once wrote: “All morning I worked on the proof of one of my poems, and I took out a comma; in the afternoon, I put it back.”

If, like Wilde, you have ever spent too much time pondering the comma—or the exclamation point, question mark and ampersand—then here is your guide.

Commas: Who cares about the Oxford kind?

Ah, the much maligned comma. “It is over-used, under-used and nearly always abused,” said a writer at Oblique Angles blog. Indeed, the comma is dangerous territory for writers. It’s punctuation that some editors prefer and speckle throughout your prose; others revile and remove it with little regard for your tastes.

So from where does it hail?

Although the comma can be traced back to ancient Greece, scholars at San Jose State University say it first appeared in printed English in the mid- to late 16th century. Until that time, printers, led by England’s first printer William Caxton, employed only three punctuation marks: the colon, period and stroke (/), whose purpose most closely resembled the comma.

Its introduction to printing presses launched the ongoing feud on comma usage, which includes debate over the Oxford comma. Also known as the serial or Harvard comma, this term refers to an extra comma in a sequence or list.

For example, I bought coffee, milk, and cheese. That second comma is of the Oxford persuasion. Why the name? Oxford English Press pushed this usage.

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken,” Lynn Truss wrote in her best-selling book on grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (notice no extra comma).

So which should you use? The Associated Press Stylebook says no Oxford comma; The Chicago Manual of Styleand—surprise, surprise—Oxford English Press recommend it. Whichever you use, just be consistent.

Exclamation points: Always overused

Exclamation points are universally overused—at least according to the tastes of some writers. “Cut out all those exclamation marks,” F. Scott Fitzgerald advised. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

Truss said in Eats, Shoots and Leaves that the exclamation point was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century and called a “note of admiration” until the mid-17th century.

Despite its early appearance in English printing, Truss explained that manual typewriters lacked exclamation points until the 1970s.

If a writer wanted one, he needed to type a full stop (a vertical line), then back up and type a period.

Use the exclamation point today to show strong emotion, but as nearly all style guides insist, avoid its overuse. Instead show strong emotion with language, not punctuation.

Question marks: Of mysterious origins—how fitting

Call them sibling punctuation. Not only do the question mark and exclamation point look similar, but their early titles echo one another. Printers in medieval England called the question mark a “note of interrogation,” according to San Jose State University.

Its origin is questionable as several theories exist. Truss dates its pre-print origin to the seventh century. In this form, it was a wavy line to the right of a dot. By the 17th century, printers replaced it with the more solid squiggle and dot used today.

Three hundred years ago a debate raged—OK, maybe it didn’t rage—about indirect and rhetorical questions. First, should question marks follow indirect questions like, “She asked me what I thought of the meal.” And second, should printers reverse the question mark’s squiggle for rhetorical questions.

The answers today are no and no: Drop the question mark for indirect questions, and the question mark curves only one way.

Ampersands: Oh, you mean this—&

This criss-crossing symbol means “and per se and,” but we know it as the “and” sign. And this sign has the most storied past of any punctuation mark or symbol.

It hails from the legendary writer Cicero—well, not Cicero directly, but his slave Marcus Tullius Tiro. As a slave and later freedman, Tiro recorded Cicero’s words and by 63 B.C. adopted shorthand, known as Tironian notes, that included the ampersand. Printers adopted it by the mid-15th century.

Latin, English, Italian and French embraced the ampersand, and by the mid-19th century it was all the rage in Europe. It gained popularity, because, when people recited letters that were also words (“I” and “A”), they would commonly precede those letters with the phrase, “and per se and.” In Latin, per se means “by itself.”

Run “and per se and” together to get ampersand. Dictionaries included the word by 1837; it even became the last “letter” of the alphabet for a short time. However, soon people grew tired of the long expression and altogether dropped it. Ampersand, once the rage, then fell out of vogue.

Today it symbolizes the word “and”; avoid its use in formal writing.

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