Punctuation Soup

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Where would be without those little dots, dashes, and squiggly lines? You wouldn’t know that we were excited about Punctuation Day, nor would you know that last sentence was a question. But where do these punctuation words come from? We thought we’d take a look at eight of our favorites.


“The history of question marks and their ilk turns out to be epic, particularly in the case of the ampersand, whose evolution takes in everything from Julius Caesar to a 17th-century typesetter called Amper (who didn’t actually exist) and even Nazi Germany.”

Johnny Dee, “Internet Picks of the Week,” The Guardian, September 2, 2011

Admirable Ampersands

Admirable Ampersands by Brett Jordan

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Brett Jordan]

The ampersand – or & – represents the word and. The word originated around 1837, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and is a “contraction of and per se” and means “(the character) ‘&’ by itself is ‘and’.” Furthermore, “in old schoolbooks the ampersand was printed at the end of the alphabet and thus by 1880s had acquired a slang sense of ‘posterior, rear end, hindquarters.’”

Read more about the history of the ampersand.


“The arches are almost flat, and decorated with a kind of chevron moulding very rarely met with.”

C. King Eley, Bell’s Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Carlisle

The chevron is also known as the guillemet, “either of the punctuation marks ‘«’ or ‘»’, used in several languages to indicate passages of speech,” and is “similar to typical quotation marks used in the English language.”

While guillemet is a diminutive of Guillaume, the name of its supposed inventor, chevron comes from the Old French chevron, “rafter,” due to the symbol’s similarity in appearance. The Old French chevron ultimately comes from the Latin caper, “goat.” The likely connection, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the similarity in appearance between rafters and goats’ “angular hind legs.” Chèvre, a type of goat cheese, is related.


“The colon marks the place of transition in a long sentence consisting of many members and involving a logical turn of the thought.”

Frederick W. Hamilton, Punctuation: A Primer of Information about the Marks of Punctuation and their Use Both Grammatically and Typographically

The colon is “a punctuation mark ( : ) used after a word introducing a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series and often after the salutation of a business letter.” The word comes from the Latin colon, “part of a poem,” which comes from the Greek kolon, which translates literally as “limb.”

Then there’s the semicolon. Ben Dolnick professed his love for the hybrid punctuation mark, despite Kurt Vonnegut pronouncing semicolons “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing,” while Stan Carey admitted to being semi-attached to them as well.


“All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.”

So It’s National Punctuation Day Again,” Motivated Grammar, September 24, 2009

The comma is “a punctuation mark ( , ) used to indicate a separation of ideas or of elements within the structure of a sentence,” and comes from the Greek komma, “piece cut off, short clause,” which comes from koptein, “to cut.”

The comma is a seemingly simple punctuation mark about which people have a lot to say. Earlier this year, Ben Yagoda discussed comma rules and comma mistakes, and addressed some comma questions. At Lingua Franca, he explored some comma beliefs. Stan Carey responded, as did The New Yorker, who defended what Mr. Yagoda called their “nutty” comma style. Johnson questioned the comma splice while Motivated Grammar assured us that comma splices are “historical and informal” but not wrong.

Finally, let’s not forget the importance of the Oxford comma:

Via Language Log / Jeff Bishop

For even more about commas, check out our list of the day.


“A single character combining a question mark and an exclamation — called an interrobang — didn’t catch on because it doesn’t read well in small sizes and never made it to standard keyboards, while, thanks to email addresses, the @, also known as an amphora, has become ubiquitous.”

Heller McAlpin, “Fond Of Fonts? Check Out ‘Just My Type’,” NPR Books, September 1, 2011

The interrobang, “a punctuation mark in the form of question mark superimposed on an exclamation point, used to end a simultaneous question and exclamation,” comes from a blend of interrogation point, an old term for the question mark, and bang, printers’ slang for the exclamation point.

The at or @ symbol’s “first documented use was in 1536,” according to Smithsonian Magazine, “in a letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae, which were shipped in large clay jars.”

irony mark

“In 1899, French poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed an ‘irony mark’ (point d’ironie) that would signal that a statement was ironic. The proposed punctuation looked like a question mark facing backward at the end of a sentence. But it didn’t catch on. No one seemed to get the point of it, ironically.”

Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer, “10 Things You Might Not Know About Punctuation,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 2011

BuzzFeed listed some other punctuation marks you may not have heard of, while The New Yorker tasked readers with inventing a new punctuation mark. The winner was the bwam, the bad-writing apology mark, which “merely requires you to surround a sentence with a pair of tildes when ‘you’re knowingly using awkward wording but don’t have time to self-edit.’” For Punctuation Day, The New Yorker has asked for a punctuation mash-up: “combine two existing pieces of punctuation into a new piece of punctuation.” Check their culture blog for the winners.


“The systematization of punctuation is due mainly to the careful and scholarly Aldus Manutius, who had opened a printing office in Venice in 1494. The great printers of the early day were great scholars as well. .  . .They naturally took their punctuation from the Greek grammarians, but sometimes with changed meanings.”

Frederick W. Hamilton, Punctuation: A Primer of Information about the Marks of Punctuation and their Use Both Grammatically and Typographically

The word punctuation came about in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and originally meant “the action of marking the text of a psalm, etc., to indicate how it should be chanted.” The word came to mean “system of inserting pauses in written matter” in the 1660s, and ultimately comes from the Latin pungere, “to prick.”


“Commas were not employed until the 16th century; in early printed books in English one sees a virgule (a slash like this /), which the comma replaced around 1520.”

Henry Hitchings, “Is This the Future of Punctuation?” The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2011

The virgule, now more commonly known as the slash is “a diagonal mark ( / ) used especially to separate alternatives, as in and/or, to represent the word per, as in miles/hour, and to indicate the ends of verse lines printed continuously.”

Virgule ultimately comes from the Latin virga, “shoot, rod, stick.” Related are verge, virgin, with the idea of a “young shoot,” and virga, an old term for “penis,” as well as “wisps of precipitation streaming from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground.”

For even more punctuation goodies, check out Jen Doll’s imagined lives of punctuation marks; McSweeney’s seven bar jokes involving grammar and punctuation; and Ben Zimmer’s piece on how emoticons may be older than we thought. Also be sure to revisit our post from last year on punctuation rules.

Finally, it’s not too late to enter the official National Punctuation Day contest. You have until September 30.

Happy punctuating!

Punctuation Rules!

Like virgules? Have a thing for pilcrows? Live for umlauts, ampersands, and interrobangs? Well, you’re in luck, because tomorrow is National Punctuation Day!

Copyblogger does a great job outlining the six most common punctuation mistakes, the first of which is Apostrophe for Plurals. As the Oatmeal says, if it’s plural, DON’T use an apostrophe, but if it’s for a contraction, DO use an apostrophe (which Old Navy learned too late). Except for its, DO use an apostrophe to indicate possession. Why? Grammarphobia tells us.

But that didn’t stop the Birmingham city council from deciding to stop using apostrophes on its street signs in 2009 (St. Paul’s Square became St. Pauls Square). Some were up in arms about this (as evinced by the 200+ comments on The Telegraph article) and thought apostrophes in Birmingham place names should be retained, but Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey didn’t think it was that big of a deal, while Michael Quinion at World Wide Words pointed out that “it has long been common to leave [apostrophes] out of placenames.”

The second most common punctuation mistake according to Copyblogger is The Comma Splice, “When the comma is used to separate independent clauses, there must be a conjunction connecting them. If the conjunction is not there, we have a comma splice.” Kim Brooks at Salon complained recently that her “college students don’t understand commas, far less how to write an essay,” while the OUP Blog asserted that teaching commas doesn’t necessarily equate teaching writing.

In another comma controversy, in June there was much uproar over the apparent deletion of the Oxford comma, which Stan Carey had some fun with. However, it turned out the beloved punctuation mark was alive and well, much to the relief of serial comma enthusiasts (and the ghosts of JFK and Stalin).

Next up we have Quotation Marks for Emphasis (sometimes called “scare quotes”). Copyblogger says, “Quotation marks are mainly used to quote speech, sentences or words,” and “can also be used to denote irony” (or as Cracked puts it, “Repeat something someone said in a high pitched girly voice”). And while quotation marks shouldn’t be used “to add emphasis to a word or sentence,” one still finds plenty of  “advertisements or promotional flyers carrying this error,” which The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks can attest to.

Another controversial punctuation topic is Punctuation Outside Quotation Marks. Some would argue that this is simply logical punctuation, while others would say that logical punctuation isn’t always so logical.

Don’t forget, punctuation can be fun too. These bands certainly thought so, as does the State Library in New South Wales, which uses an interrobang as their logo. Wired gave us 11 secret meanings behind text punctuations, including emoticons, which supposedly mean “you want to bring the conversation to life,” but use too many and “you look immature.” ASCII-based emoticons turned 29 this week, while emotional typographical symbols have been with us long before computers or texting, as per both Jennifer 8. (yes, numeral eight) Lee at The New York Times and Ben Zimmer at Language Log. Hiroette taught us the difference between Japanese and English emoticons, and Arnold Zwicky reminded us emoticons are not to be spoken.

Like punctuation terminology? Check out this list, this list, and this tag. You could join the Semicolon Appreciation Society, and while you’re at it, enter the Punctuation Paragraph Contest. Good luck! ( ^_^ )


Comma Kameleon

Merrill Perlman* has a nice piece in the Columbia Journalism Review** about a supposed gaffe Joe Biden made earlier this year during the primaries, when he was quoted as saying “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

That quote may be missing a comma. Perlman doesn’t delve in the politics of it, or try to plumb Biden’s intentions, and I won’t either. But she goes into some detail about restrictive vs. nonrestrictive clauses, and how something as small as a single comma can significantly change meaning, and have broad-reaching repercussions. If you care about the power of language and punctuation**, it’s worth reading.

* Whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak about copy editing last month. Great talk.
** Where I worked for a while in the late nineties.
*** And I know you do.

World’s Best Exclamation Point

As a morose little kid I loathed exclamation points, and as an insecure young adult I only used them ironically, when talking about things I hated or when feigning hysteria.

Used gratuitously or insincerely they’re still nauseating, but in the right context a good exclamation point is a fine thing. So I was overjoyed to come across Sheep! magazine, “The Voice of the Independent Flockmaster,” in this article on young farmers.

The people at Sheep! love sheep. Their enthusiasm is sincere and infectious, all the more so for being focused on something most of us probably don’t give a shit about. If Money magazine changed its name to Money!, that would be stupid. But Sheep!? Sheep! is teh alesome.

Punctuational Outburst

A friend in academe sent me a paper on the evolution of language, from this month’s Science. I’m reposting it here, so you can read it for free. Academic journals are a racket.

Even free, I’m not sure you want to bother. “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts” is boring and largely self-evident*. But mostly just boring: If real language was as dry and devoid of life as most academics make it, I’d give it up. I’d stop reading, stop talking, and just grunt.

The authors lead with an implied claim that American English emerged abruptly as a language when Noah Webster introduced his first dictionary. You could say that publishing a dictionary is a sign that a language has emerged–that dictionaries are symptoms of language. But they insinuate that Webster published his dictionary and, ipso facto, the American Language was created. I can’t imagine the authors actually believe this, but it’s how their forced analogy comes out.

They then present the thesis that, basically, language evolves more rapidly during times of social upheaval. Sure, but how did they discover this? It was “inferred from vocabulary data,” and in a footnote they say their “materials and methods are available on Science Online.” Their methods would have been more interesting to me than their conclusions, and I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper*.

I have no idea of the actual merit of “Punctuational Bursts.” I am, clearly, totally ignorant when it comes to, among other things, linguistics, and in general the academic side of language and words. But wadding through academic writing like this makes me want to cry tears of vomit. Can anyone recommend an intro to or overview of linguistics that’s actually pleasant to read?

* UPDATE: Maybe I was a little gassy or something when I wrote this. I just reread the paper, and yes, it’s rather dry, but I think that’s almost a requirement to get published in a fancy journal like Science. And I wasn’t previously aware of some of the limits imposed by them. See the comments for a response from one of the authors, and yet another lame, arm-flapping mea culpa from yours truly. Note to self: work on impulse control.

Who Gives a F*** About An Oxford Comma?

That’s the question posed by New York band Vampire Weekend in a song of the same name, and posed in turn to a bunch of wordie types by Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair.

The panel included Grant Barrett of Double-Tongued (answer: “a little bit”), V.F.’s own copy editor, Peter Devine (“a modest-size fuck”), and David Rose, a V.F. writer and actual Oxford grad. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rose was vociferous, ardent even, in the comma’s defense, professing to also give “a damn and a bean.”

Vampire Weekend’s lead singer, Ezra Koenig, says “the song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.” But Ezra, it’s just so rare that anyone outside of our tiny world even knows what an Oxford comma is. Yours is almost certainly the first song ever to mention it. Even if you are using it as a metaphor for small-minded failure to see the forest, please, let us have this little moment.

Vampire Weekend is having an extended moment, and their new record is great, laced with Afro-pop and ska beats, twinkling guitar and piano parts, and lyrics that are literate without being all Professor Von Schmartzenpanz about it. The band themselves claim to be “specialists in the following styles: ‘Cape Code Kwassa Kwassa’, ‘Upper West Side Soweto’, ‘Campus’, and ‘Oxford Comma Riddim.'”

Fred Wilson, blogging about their record release show last night at the Bowery Ballroom (funny that they’re just getting around to releasing a CD), has posted an MP3 of “Who Gives a Fuck About An Oxford Comma.” I don’t want to hotlink him, but it’s worth heading over for a listen.