The Neatest Little Paper Ever Read ®

Issue 974



by Janet Spencer

Come along with Tidbits as we punctuate!


• Aristophanes of Byzantium was a librarian at the Egyptian library of Alexandria in the third century B.C. when he noticed a problem with the current method of writing. At the time, writing was done on scrolls. The characters would run left to right on one line, then right to left on the next line, continuing in this zigzag pattern to the end. There were no spaces or breaks in between the words or separating the sentences. People trying to read these scrolls out loud had a hard time. Aristophanes invented a simple system of dots to indicate pauses and phrases in order to make scrolls easier to read aloud.

• A dot in the middle of the line indicated a place where someone reading out loud should pause to take a breath, and it was called a “komma,” the Greek word meaning “clause.” A dot at the bottom of the line indicated where a reader should take a longer pause. It was called a “kolon” meaning “verse” and indicated a break in between two clauses. A dot at the top of the line was called a “periodos” meaning “segment” and indicated a full-stop pause at the conclusion of the written sentence. This system of dots became our comma, colon, and period. It was the first punctuation.

• In the years before there were spaces placed between letters, a small curved mark would often be placed underneath letters to indicate which word they belonged to where it would otherwise cause confusion. For example, “susanalbumparty” is confusing until marks are added to indicate which letters belong to which words: “susan‿album‿party.” The Greek word “hypo” means “under” (as in “hypodermic” meaning “under the skin”) and “hen” means “one.” This is the origin of the hyphen, a mark originally underneath a word, now located right in-between words.

• It wasn’t until the 8th century that writers began adding spaces in between words, largely in response to the difficulty that Irish and Scottish monks had when they were copying Bibles written in Latin without knowing Latin themselves.

• Charlemagne commissioned scholars to make reading and writing easier for the proletariat, and that’s when upper case and lower case letters were invented.


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