Writing Mini-Lessons: A Brief History of Some Common Punctuation Marks

Fascinating and True Facts about Punctuation

The roots of some of the punctuation marks we use today can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Here are some fascinating facts about how some punctuation marks began and became what they are today.

Quotation marks began in ancient texts as lips, but turned on their sides. Early writers wanted a way to show when the words they were writing had been spoken by somebody else, so they used two curved marks to represent the lips of a speaker. One lip was put at the beginning of the quote, and a second lip was put at the end. Over time, those two curved marks evolved into the tiny set of double lips that are our quotation marks today.

The question mark began in ancient Roman texts as the Latin word quaestio, which means “question.” Writers inserted this Latin word when they asked a question in their texts. As time passed, quaestio was shortened to Qo, then to Q. and finally as a Q with the period beneath the letter. However, the Roman letter Q resembles the Arabic numeral 2, so that is how the question mark became the symbol it is today.

The exclamation point has its roots in ancient Greece. Io was an ancient Greek word expressing excitement, much like our word wow. Greek writers added the word Io into their texts at places where they were excited. Over time, scholars changed the o to a dot and finally, the dot came to rest under the I, resulting in our modern exclamation point.

Similarly, the period comes from the ancient Greek word peri, which means round. Writers placed a small circle at the end of each sentence to illustrate that they’d gone all around a subject, that the idea expressed was complete and well-rounded. Again, writers eventually shifted from a small circle to the dot we use today.

Finally, the word comma comes from the Greek word komma, which means “a little knife” or “to cut off.” Writers placed the little curved blade of a knife, a comma, whenever they wanted to show a clause of phrase: a group of words cut from the body of the sentence.

Two Kinds of Punctuation
Definition: Punctuation is a device for writers that supplements letters.

  1. Tone Marks
    These came first, were developed for writing to be read aloud, and show tone of voice, stresses, and pauses.

    • Declaration ( . , ; )
    • Interrogation ( ? )
    • Exclamation ( ! )
    • Parenthesis ( )
    • Elaboration ( : )
    • Borrowing or Quoting ( ” ” )
  2. Refinements
    These came later and were developed for writing to be read silently.

    • Brackets ( [ ] )
    • Capital letters
    • Paragraphs
    • Indentation of paragraphs
    • Ellipsis ( . . . )
    • Dash ( —)

Food for Thought
The apostrophe ( ‘ ) and hyphen ( – ) are practically extra letters. Are they part of our spelling system, rather than marks of punctuation?

More Food for Thought
Did you know that . . .