A post from Shady Characters

Maximal meaning in minimal space: the history of punctuation

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.1 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.2

What of punctuation marks themselves? There is a very definite scale of complexity when it comes to punctuation, ranging from ostentatious symbols such as the manicule (☞) and asterism (⁂) all the way down to the humble comma (,) and apostrophe (’). Sitting at the bottom of the scale, the full stop (.) is surely simplest of all, and yet it is possible to step beyond even its mathematical irreducibility. The most minimal mark of punctuation is not a mark at all: it is the space between words.

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.3 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.456

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.4 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 paragraphos evolved into the “pilcrow”, a C-shaped mark (¶) placed at the start of each new section in a text.7 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.

Then, in the mid-1450s, Gutenberg published his famed 42-line Bible,8 and everything changed overnight. Spaces, once as wide or as narrow as a scribe chose to make them, begat an extended family of fixed widths, from hair spaces ( ) up to em quads ( ), that printers required to justify lines. Once carefully painted in by hand, pilcrows became too time-consuming to add; left out, their ghostly absences gave rise to the indented paragraph.9

In the end, even a simple word space, paragraph or full stop carries the weight of centuries of tradition and evolution. Like Hemingway, we may prefer to leave out colons, semicolons and dashes, but as long as we do our readers the favour of spacing words, finishing sentences and breaking paragraphs, there can be no such thing as minimal punctuation.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Punctuation”.


Hemingway, Ernest, and Herman Finkelstein Collection Library of Congress. The Old Man and the Sea. Scribner, 1952.


Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Boustrophedon (writing Style)”.


Brown, T. Julian. “Punctuation”. Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Pearse, Roger. “More on the Paragraphos Mark”. Roger Pearse, November 10, 2010.


Johnson, William A. “The Function of the Paragraphus in Greek Literary Prose Texts”. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 100 (1994): 65-68. https://doi.org/10.2307/20189008.


Parkes, M. B. “The Development of the General Repertory of Punctuation”. In Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, 41-49. University of California Press, 1993.


Davies, M., and . The Gutenberg Bible. Pomegranate Artbooks in association with The British Library, 1997.


Tschichold, Jan, and Robert Bringhurst. “Why the Beginnings of Paragraphs Must Be Indented”. In The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, 105-109. Lund Humphries, 1991.


36 comments on “Maximal meaning in minimal space: the history of punctuation

  1. Comment posted by Barry Mernin on

    I have never heard of an asterism. Bravo. I would have used an exclamation point, but I can’t stand em.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      The unintended exclamation point is an invidious creature. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by annie morgan on

    Beautifully concise. I do enjoy your Shady Characters site.
    (Yay!! *–)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      It was quite a challenge to keep it that concise, I can tell you. I’m glad you like the site, and thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Robert Lipton on

    Of course the Greeks had a word for it. Now I’m going to discover this Shady Characters site. Thanks.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Hugo — glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Comment posted by Chris Smetham on

    Most interesting. I often use an ellipsis (never knew it was called that)… it saves time when updating Twitter.

  5. Comment posted by mike shupp on

    Also worth noting: the use of “small” or non-capital letters. I gather this innovation too came into being with spaces between words, at the court of Charlemagne around 800 AD.

    Spurring a new form of behavior: silent reading. Previously, one read a document aloud while reading to make sense of the run-on text. It’s recorded that Julius Ceasar was regarded with awe in his time for being able to read silently.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Mike,

      Absolutely! Carolingian minuscules, and the Renaissance roman letterforms that were based on them, are an integral part of the development of writing in the West. I wrote a little about minuscules in The Pilcrow, part 2, and there’s a little more again on the subject in the book.

      Also, it’s interesting to hear that Julius Caesar could read silently — though I read a little about that (and mentioned silent reading vs. reading aloud in The Pilcrow, part 1), I didn’t dig into it too deeply. Something to revisit in the future.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Comment posted by LL Schiavone on

    This is not only interesting but also a lovely piece of writing. I’m going to the Shady Characters site too.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you like the rest of the site.

  7. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    I love all punctuation marks! My favorite is the “slammer.”

  8. Comment posted by Karen Knox on

    I knew the Ancient Greeks wrote as an ox plows, but it never occurred to me until now that perhaps my students are reincarnations of Ancient Greeks since they use very little punctuation and can write run-sentences till the cows come home!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Karen,

      Probably best that you don’t let slip that particular palaeographic tidbit, in that case! I can image “but the ancient Greeks did it that way,” becoming a popular refrain among your students.

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. Comment posted by Tim on

    From Carol Kidwell’s magnificent biography on Bembo, “Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal”. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, 2004, p. 17, regarding Bembo’s invention of punctuation:

    “Therefore the Aldus-Bembo edition of Petrarch’s ‘Canzoniere’, songs and sonnets, was called ‘Le cose italiane’ [‘The Italian Things’].

    “In his introductory letter to the reader Aldus says that this text is derived from Petrarch’s own handwritten manuscript, now in the possession of Pietro Bembo. He comments on Petrarch’s spelling and advises the reader to study Tuscan before tackling the book, a warning which would not be necessary today because Bembo established the Tuscan of Petrarch and Boccaccio as standard Italian. Aldus also tells the reader to expect Dante soon. Petrarch’s ‘Italian Things’ was Aldus’s first book printed in italics and it employed the punctuation Bembo had invented and which was first used in his ‘De Aetna’: the full stop, comma, and apostrophe.”

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Tim,

      I hadn’t realised that Aldus explicitly credited Petrarch’s handwriting as the source for his italic type. I’ll have to take a look at that introductory letter.

      As for inventing the full stop, comma and apostrophe — hmm. The apostrophe was used by ancient Greeks, though the comma and full stop were much more recent inventions. I’ll have to take a look at Parkes to see what he says about it.

      Thanks for the comment — food for thought!

    2. Comment posted by Tim on

      Hi Keith

      Thanks so much for your response. You are perfectly right, of course, but a “slip of the rapidly reading eye” may have been involved here: it’s only the TEXT that was derived from the handwritten manuscript. On p. 16 of the Bembo biography Carol Kidwell says: “He [Aldus] also gave his attention to the type face, to make books agreeable to read. He employed an outstanding designer to create roman letters from ancient inscriptions for Latin works [104] and italic letters from the best chancery script for Italian, possibly again adapting it from works in the Bembo library [105]. Erasmus considered the italic script the most beautiful in the world [106].”

      Very sorry: I should have included Kidwell’s footnotes, too! Here they are:

      104. Monotype, “Le Bembo”, 6–7 [Monotype Corporation Ltd. “Le Bembo d’Alde Manuce.” London: Author 1954]; Floriani, “La giovanezza umanistica di Pietro Bembo,” 46. This was first used in Bembo’s “De Aetna”, the first book entirely in Latin which Aldus published. The type face has therefore been called “Bembo.”

      105. Monotype, Ibid., 8–9. The Venetian Senate granted Aldus a ten year copyright on the script, “De Aetna” (1969), 142 note by Giovanni Mandersteig. Sanuto, “I Diarii”, vol. 4, 369 reports on a meeting of the Senate on 17 October 1502 in which he made a motion, unanimously carried, that Aldus should have a ten year copyright on new works which he published and on new scripts. The protection of the new type faces was confirmed by papal bulls of Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X; Lowry, “Aldus Manutius”, 154. Clough, “Bembo’s Edition of Petrarch And His Association With The Aldine Press,” 69–70 suggests that italic script may be based on the handwriting of the copyist, Bartolommeo di San Vito, in an elegant manuscript owned by Bernardo Bembo [Pietro’s father]. Aldus used italic script in 1501 for his editions of Vergil and Horace. Its use was not restricted to works in Italian.”

      106. Lowry, Ibid., 130.

      And then, the footnote for the first citation:

      114. Petrarca, “Le cose italiane,”B r –Biii v; Dazzi, “Aldo Manuzio,” 30, 52, 52n78. [Dazzi, Manlio. “Aldo Manuzio e il dialogo veneziano di Erasmo.” Vicenza: Neri Pozza 1969.]

      What really surprised me in Kidwell’s biography was that Bembo was named as the inventor of the full stop, comma and apostrophe. (Always wanted to know who it was. Unless he wasn’t. . .)

      And as many others have said: Thanks for your fascinating post!

    3. Comment posted by Tim on

      Oh, and I have placed a pre-order for your book, which looks a great deal more reader-friendly than that of Parkes!

    4. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Tim,

      Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarifications! I read far too quickly for my own good. It’s a little surreal to see the Vatican of the 16th century getting involved in the copyright protection racket!

      I’ll have to look out all thoses references. Thanks again for the comment, and for pre-ordering! Brad Walrod has done a great job making Shady Characters eminently readable, and I hope you enjoy it.

  10. Comment posted by Will Smith on

    You really know how to bring a subject to an end

  11. Comment posted by UnfriendlyShoe on

    I enjoyed reading this article, which I found especially well laid out in my phone’s browser.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That’s good to hear. Thanks! I didn’t style the site with mobile browsing in mind, especially, but sticking to simple, regular typography does seem to mean that it travels fairly well.

  12. Comment posted by William Gruar on

    Thank you for an interesting article. The pilcrow still exists, of course, in MS word when ‘show’ is chosen — a more elaborate pilcrow is displayed when the writer enters a new paragraph, just as it did in the old days. The midpoint dots which also appear are indispensible for writers and editors alike. Your programme does not permit the also indispensable em dash, (sigh).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi William — glad you enjoyed it!

      I’ve written quite a lot more on the pilcrow in the past (part 1, part 2 & part 3), and, in fact, its appearance in MS Word was one of the things that first piqued my interest. The accompanying middots were an added bonus!

      Comments here should support the em dash — two hyphens typed together resolve into an en or em dash according to whether or not they touch adjacent characters.

      Thanks for the comment!

  13. Comment posted by Sulekha on

    I use too many commas, says my editor. This article was an interesting read. And to also know that Hemingway used just two punctuation marks most sparingly.. That’s commendable. What is even more is that someone noticed it enough to write about it…

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Sulekha,

      Glad you enjoyed the article! I can’t take credit for determining that The Old Man and the Sea contains only a single exclamation mark — the idea came from this article on Quartz that looked at the frequency of exclamation marks in different literary works. All I did was extend that by looking at the frequency of other marks.

      Thanks for reading!

  14. Comment posted by Charles F on

    I have a better citation for you to use than Encyclopedia Britannia for the third entry. Not only is it a better source, it also encourages readers to learn about punctuation. The book is:
    Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2004. Print

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Charles — Eats, Shoots & Leaves is certainly an entertaining book, but it is, by design, at least as much of an opinion piece as it is a history of punctuation. I’d contend that the Britannica article is a better place to start when looking specifically at punctuation history.

      Thanks for the comment!

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