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Making a Point

The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation

By David Crystal
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Making a Point by David Crystal

Making a Point (2015) is all about punctuation, the little marks that tie written language together. These blinks explain what function punctuation serves, why it can become a heated topic of discussion and how writers have used it creatively for years.

Key idea 1 of 7

Punctuation serves important functions, but it didn’t always exist.

Let's say you're on the street and see a sign for a café that says "SOUPOFTHEDAY” seemingly written as one long word in order to squeeze it onto the sign. You probably wouldn't have much trouble figuring out what it says, but you’d most likely appreciate some spaces between the words.

That’s more or less the story of punctuation: we could live without it, but having these marks, or in the case of spaces, a lack thereof, makes for a more enjoyable reading experience.

For instance, punctuation improves our ability to understand by reducing ambiguities – but this tool wasn't always around. The first languages contained no spaces between words and it was only around 700 AD that spaces became the norm in England. And even by 1100 AD, only around half of inscriptions used spaces.

But as strange as it may seem today, it actually made sense then. With so few inscribed words in existence, spaces weren’t necessary for comprehension. After all, inscriptions about people and places tended to be unambiguous, making it unnecessary to divide the words. For example, someone could easily read the name of their local church, “STAGNES” as, “St. Agnes.”

Today, while spaces still aren’t essential, they save us the time of decoding ambiguous statements and, although we don’t use them when we speak, these breaks are useful when reading a new text. For example, “therapistsneedspecialtreatment” could be read as both “Therapists need special treatment” and “The rapists need special treatment.”

In other words, it’s great if everyone knows a text and what it intends to communicate. But when reading a sentence for the first time, spaces save us the trouble of having to crack this code.

In this way, punctuation makes language easier, but it can also be used to make things stand out. For instance, quotation marks used to be the go-to punctuation used for emphasis, but since quotes signify other things as well, typographical styles like italics came into use as emphatic punctuation.

Nowadays, italics are giving way to bold type as a way to add emphasis. This shift is due to the fact that more text is read on computer screens, the lower resolution of which can make italics difficult to read.

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