It’s easy to take punctuation for granted after seeing commas, question marks and periods your whole life, but the reality is, punctuation is quite interesting, and some of the facts about it might surprise you.
1. A question mark used to be a word
In Latin, when they wrote a query, they’d finish it with the word “questio” (which contrary to how it sounds, isn’t a spell in a Harry Potter book). Later, they abbreviated it “qo,” but because of the tendency to read it as the ending of a word, they put both in a single space, with the lowercase Q on top of the lowercase O. As time went on, people made the Q a tailed loop and the O a dot to save time.
2. Joyful, joyful!
Similar to the question mark, the exclamation point comes from the Latin word “io,” which means an exclamation of joy. As with the question mark, they wrote it vertically within one space as a lowercase I over a lowercase O, and the O, as happens to it so frequently, was relegated to a simple dot.
3. An @ by any other name still works on Twitter
We call it an “at symbol” or “at mark,” but in the Netherlands, they call it (their word for) a monkey’s tail. In Israel, it’s a strudel. In Russia, it’s a little dog. In Italy, it’s a small snail. But English speakers aren’t the only ones who don’t have a cool animal-related name for it. In Bosnia, it’s aptly called the crazy A. Bosnia for the win!
4. & used to be in the alphabet
Invented by an ancient scribe, the symbol & used to follow Z in the alphabet. Since it didn’t have a name, children would sing “Z and per se and” (which means “Z and which means ‘and'”). After a while, the slurring of “and per se and” became ampersand, the modern name of the symbol.
For some deranged reason, they got rid of one of the most useful symbols ever created: the interrobang. It’s even fun to say. It’s a question mark superimposed over an exclamation point, which on a modern keyboard is typed either ?! or !?. Obviously, it’s intended to represent a question asked excitedly. You can’t beat a punctuation mark that’s simultaneously a portmanteau and onomatopoeia. If you agree, go like the interrobang Facebook page.
Everyone knows the # symbol is short code for number, but if you asked people these days, they would say hashtag. Those irritating voice-hell operators call them pound signs when you have to press it after you enter your account number. Actually, it’s called an octothorpe.
7. It’s Mack the Knife (aka, the comma)
The oh-so-misunderstood comma has an equally treacherous-sounding history. It comes from the Greek “komma,” which refers to something that’s been cut off (i.e., a clause).
8. That time of the sentence
The humble period may seem obvious, but back in the day, it didn’t exist at all. Roman writing used to run together with no spaces or punctuation and using all capital letters — get out your Enigma machines! Then they added the dot to signify a stopping point. The dot you see between words or numbers is a legacy of this. We moved it down a bit to the bottom of the line and called it the period.
9. A dash of dashes
Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes, oh my! Hyphens are just used to join words, but people tend to think they’re the only horizontal punctuation game in town, even substituting them for their longer counterparts (oh, the horror!). En dashes are slightly longer than hyphens. Actually, they’re the same width as the letter N, and they indicate that you’re trying to show range (10–12 pounds). The em dash is… wait for it… the same width as the letter M and is a totally legit punctuation mark, often subbing in for commas and parentheses when greater emphasis is required — like when you’re trying to make a point.
10. Wink, wink… nudge, nudge
An ellipsis, those three little dots you see in a row so often, is from the ancient Greek meaning “omission,” which is exactly how it’s typically used in journalism — to indicate that words the journalist doesn’t believe affect the meaning of the quote are being left out. But modern writers have been taking liberties with the second Greek meaning of the word’s etymology… “to fall short.” Writers these days (including myself as you can see) like to use it to indicate they’ve paused for dramatic effect, been interrupted or even left off intentionally to allow the reader to draw their own…