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History of the Punctuation of English Writing

Punctuation prior to the development of printing was light and haphazard. William Caxton (1474), the first printer of books in English, used three punctuation marks: the stroke (/) for marking word groups, the colon (:) for marking distinct syntactic pauses, and the period (.) for marking the ends of sentences and brief pauses. For example,

The thyrde temptation that the deuyl maketh to theym that deye. is by Impacyence: that is ayenste charyte/ For by charyte ben holden to loue god abouve alle thynges.
(modern form)
The third temptation that the Devil makes to them that die is by Impatience; that is against charity. For by charity be holden to love God above all things.

Clearly the use of a period for brief pauses as well as full stops at the ends of sentences was inconvenient and writers soon stopped so using it. Tyndale's Gospels (1535) eliminated that practice and other ambiguities of Caxton's system of punctuation. Soon after Tyndale the comma replaced the stroke. The semicolon was introduced at that time.

Early seventeenth century writers appeared to use colons, semicolons, and commas interchangably. Their use depended upon pauses for breath rather than the syntactic structure of the sentence.

Writers of the late seventeenth century tried to establish precise rules for the use of the comma, semicolon and colon, on the principles that a semicolon indicated a pause twice as long as that for a comma, and a colon indicated a pause twice as long as for a semicolon. Some grammarians rebelled at such artificial rules. One grammarian of later times, Justin Brenan, wrote,

What a quantity of useless controversial stuff has been written upon the proper use of the semicolon and the colon -- but I am wrong in saying that it was useless for, at last, common sense prevailed and the public threw these stops overboard.

Brenan himself wanted to substitute the dash (−) for the colon. As he expressed it, "No one of good taste could use any other stop." Brenan was one of the first grammarians to argue that punctuation marks should not be primarily indicators of pauses for breath but an integral part of the sentence pattern.

The question mark was originally called a note of interrogation. There was some uncertainty in the seventeenth century as to whether a question mark should be used when a question is only described (an indirect question) or only used in the case a question is actually being asked (a direct question). By the eighteenth century the question mark was only being used for direct questions.

The exclamation mark comes from the term note of admiration, in which admiration referred to its Latin sense of wonderment. One theory of its origin is that it was originally the Latin word for joy, Io, written with the I written above the o.

Quotation marks are the most recently added form of punctuation, having been created in the late seventeenth century. However the use of bullets for items in a list verges on being the introduction of a new punctuation mark.

In recent times some writers tried to introduce a new punctuation mark which is a combination of the question and exclamation marks (!? or ?!) to indicate a tone of shocked disbelief but nothing much came of it. English could benefit from the Spanish system of punctuation marks preceding a sentence as well as ending the sentence. Thus a question is Spanish is preceded by an inverted question mark and an exclamation by an inverted exclamation mark.

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