Maximal Meaning in Minimal Space: the History of Punctuation

The Core presents the original English version of an article that was published in the April 2013 issue of Hiatus, la revue. Here is an extract:

Punctuation, as any dictionary will tell you, consists of the marks that dance around the letters of a text to mark clauses, sentences and inflection. What, though, is minimal punctuation? Is it in the range of marks that a writer uses? Ernest Hemingway wrote famously minimalist prose, for instance, where marks such as the semicolon (;), the ellipsis (…) and the dash (–) are notable mostly for their absence. The Old Man and the Sea contains but one colon and one exclamation mark, and is none the worse for it.

Writing in ancient Greece was broken by neither marks nor spaces. Lines of closely-packed letters ran left to right across the page and back again like a farmer ploughing a field. The sole aid to the reader was the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke in the margin that indicated something of interest on the corresponding line. It was up to the reader to work out what, exactly, had been highlighted in this fashion: a change of topic, perhaps; a new stanza in a poem; or a change in speaker in a drama.

Punctuation itself – literally, the act of adding “points” to a text – did not arrive until the third century BC, when Aristophanes of the great Library at Alexandria described a series of middle (·), low (.) and high points (˙) denoting short, medium and long pauses. Over the centuries, this system gave rise to punctuation as we know it: from Aristophanes’ three dots came the colon, the full stop, and many other marks besides. At the same time the paragraphosevolved into the “pilcrow”, a C-shaped mark (¶) placed at the start of each new section in a text. The word space was a late arrival, appearing only when monks in medieval England and Ireland began splitting apart unfamiliar Latin texts to make them easier to read.

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