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Pause and effect in punctuation

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Do you ever feel the need to use the interrobang or the irony mark in your writing? The interrobang combines the question (interrogation) mark and the exclamation mark (bang, in printers’ jargon) and is intended to combine the functions of the two.

The irony mark, a small, elevated, backward-facing question mark, is among a number of proposed new symbols, which also include marks for doubt, certitude, acclamation, authority and indignation.

A plethora of such punctuation marks would, however, detract from the flow of written material.

Punctuation (from Latin punctum, a point) is vital to clarify the meaning of written language. In early European texts the words ran on continuously. St Jerome (ca AD400) presided over advances in spelling and punctuation in biblical and liturgical manuscripts, and in the eighth century the cleric and scholar Alcuin improved on these endeavours.

The marks included the virgule (forward slash) and dots centred in the line, raised or in groups. In the later Middle Ages, punctuation developed to indicate the pauses and intonation required when sacred texts were read aloud in church and refectory.

The Venetian editor and printer Aldus Manutius (1449–1515) and his grandson of the same name (1547–97) introduced a standard for punctuation. Their system included the modern comma, semicolon, colon and full stop. The younger Aldus was the first to state plainly that clarification of syntax is the main object of punctuation.

By the end of the 17th century the exclamation mark, quotation mark and the dash had been added to the system and the syntactical school of thought, which saw punctuation primarily as a guide to the grammatical construction of a sentence, had won the argument with the elocutionary school.

The need for punctuation to take account of the rhythm of speech continued to be recognised, however. Lawyers, contrariwise, use extremely light punctuation in the hope of avoiding ambiguities.

Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author’s, or editor’s, choice. For example, Ernest Hemingway seldom used any marks except the full stop, but Henry James would be unintelligible without his numerous commas.

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