Set up a decade ago to promote understanding of the language, the University of Winchester’s English Project next week marks English Language Day with an open lecture on the history of punctuation. Professor Christopher Mulvey provides some bullet points.
1. Favourite origin story
The great age of punctuation lasted from 1460 to the time of Aldus Manutius, who died 500 years ago. The arrival of the printing press meant the old puncti system of the monks — who put a dot underneath a word for a full stop and a dot above it for a comma — was difficult to do. The solution was the virgule, the twig, which was an oblique stroke. Manutius, a printer from Venice who created fonts for Latin and Greek and Hebrew, took the full stop and added to it the elegant curve that is our modern comma.
2. New marks
The “exclamaquest”, also known as the “interrobang” — a question mark and exclamation point together — was only invented in the 1960s. I’m against additions but, if forced, might look at the apostrophe, which has so many overlapping functions — it serves to indicate a missing letter but also becomes a possessive — there are about 13 different ways of using it, which is why it gets so mixed up.
3. One to revive
The paragraph mark, or pilcrow, is quite nice. We see it a lot in word processing, and I use it in margins when I’m correcting copy. It’s a sort of proofreader’s mark, lean and clean.
4. Most misused
My students don’t really know how to use commas, they just use them like a pepper pot, if they haven’t got enough they go and add some more. It’s tricky — there’s the Oxford [University Press] way of putting a lot in and the Cambridge way that avoids them as much as possible. But the thing with commas is that they’re useful.
They started as clever signs made with parentheses and semicolons, a kind of wink and a nod and a smile, before they were made into graphics. I might use a smiley if writing to a woman, but I probably wouldn’t if I was writing to a man — I know that if I did he’d think that I’m an idiot.
‘A History of English Punctuation’, October 13 from 6.30pm at the University of Winchester, englishproject.org