We use punctuation every day, and yet many people cannot identify any but the most common punctuation marks. Everyone can identify a comma or a period, of course—they are the stars of the punctuation universe—but not many people can tell you that # is an octothorpe. Fewer people still can tell you that an umlaut (¨) is not some creepy guy who tries to take advantage of intoxicated women during Oktoberfest, that tilde (~) is not the character Rosalind Russell played in His Girl Friday, or that the circumflex (^) is not an incredibly popular French exercise machine. Even if they know the name of the mark they are using, many people still misuse punctuation all the time. Is there a more abused member of the English punctuation family than the simple apostrophe (’)? In a classic error, one that almost every Anglophone has made at one time or another, its and it’s are not the same word and do not mean the same thing. Its is a possessive pronoun; it’s is a contraction of it is. And since contractions fill the English language in much the same way that the dead fill the voter rolls in Chicago, the chances of some careless writer dropping the apostrophe grow exponentially with every word they write. Some writers choose to eliminate the apostrophe altogether, even if, as in the case of cant and wont, the words have nothing to do with can’t or won’t. Punctuation is, I think, one of the great inventions of the human mind; it clarifies the dense and often opaque mush of language into an easily understandable form; and it boggles the imagination that people went for thousands of years without it.
Punctuation, it may surprise you to learn, did not arrive along with the invention of written language, although you’d think the need for it would be immediately obvious. The Sumerians, who invented writing to help them collect sales taxes and then used their invention to help them dodge those same taxes, did not use punctuation at all. If a scribe reading his cuneiform tablets droned on for longer than the listener was prepared to listen, the listener would ask the scribe to stop, or, if time was short, the listener would simply bash the scribe into unconsciousness with a large rock. Being a scribe was a dangerous trade in Sumer, and among the first occupational safety laws archaeology knows of are found on a cuneiform tablet that dates from approximately 3500 BCE, which required scribes to wear helmets whenever they had to read any document longer than two tablets to the easily distractible public.
The Egyptians had no apparent need for punctuation, a contention that many Egyptologists now feel is not altogether accurate; a hieroglyph of a boy choking a cat is, many scholars believe, the first use of the semicolon. The ancient Hebrews eliminated punctuation along with vowels in order to save space—the Ten Commandments did without both, for example, so Moses would not herniate himself on the way down Sinai—the lack of both does lead one to think that the Ten Commandments may qualify as history’s first tweet—and the ancient Greeks could have used punctuation—Aristotle first advance the possibility in the Nichomachean Ethics—but chose not to do anything with the idea; keeping the punctuation out kept everyone except the speaker from getting a word in edgewise, an always important skill in Greek politics.
After the Aristotelian false start, punctuation waited for another millennium for its ineluctable rediscovery, if can call Aristotle’s one line afterthought a discovery in the first place, by Christian monks in the years after the conversion of the Irish. Soon after St. Patrick converted all the land to Christianity, it became clear to him that the traditional Irish form of writing, Ogham, was not adequate to meet the needs of his ever-growing congregation. Ogham, a series of lines and symbols cut into a vertical axis, looked good cut into a large stone, but to Patrick’s Romanized eye Ogham lacked the both the dignity and the utility of the Latin alphabet. The introduction of the Latin alphabet, which, if you didn’t already know, is what you’re reading right now, proved a boon as the Irish (except, of course, for the Ogham chisellers, who had to find other work and were therefore not inclined to help Patrick at all) entered into the spiritual life of the Church with the zeal of the newly converted, giving up everything to lead the monastic life and serve the Church by leading lives of piety, poverty, chastity, and copying.
Copying was a big part of Irish spirituality in those years. The Roman Empire in the West had shuffled off this mortal coil the century before, leaving a big stack of stuff in the Church’s in-basket to do by the time it got back from vacation. Well, the Roman Empire in the West never did make it back from vacation (the Roman Empire in the East continued onwards and upwards for another thousand years, but that’s another story, and one that did not require copying and collating parchment in bulk), but the Irish Church decided that this was work that needed doing anyway and that the swarms of devout new monks were just the ones to do it. The monks agreed and set off on their tasks with a high heart and a prayer on their lips. It did not take the monks long to discover, however, that the Romans, the Greeks, and the Israelites all suffered from the same curse—they didn’t know when to shut up, a failing that carried over into their literatures and even into Scripture, and if they (the monks) were ever going to get a bite to eat or something to drink down at the pub they would have to do something to cut the graphomanical enthusiasms of the ancients down to a reasonable length.
To that worthy end, one Father Ambrose, a young monk at the monastery at Clonmacnoise, one day decided that he’d had enough of Roman politics in the form of Cicero’s denunciations of Catiline in the Roman Senate (Cicero thought that Catiline was a lying traitorous two-bit punk and wasn’t afraid to say so, but Cicero was also a politician who loved the sound of his own voice—what politician doesn’t—and so expounded on Catiline’s faults at considerable length and for hours on end, something politicians could do in ancient Rome, given that no one had cable yet) and in disgust threw his quill pen down at the manuscript. A bit of ink flew from the nib and landed at the end of the last word Father Ambrose had copied. The good monk looked at what he had done and in a flash of incredible insight saw that it was good. In fact, he shouted, ‘Hallelujah,’ or something roughly equivalent to that worthy word of divine praise. One witness to the event said later that he was pretty sure Father Ambrose had said, ‘Hot Damn,’ but very few people credit his account.
After the invention of the period, Irish monasteries entered an age of punctuational brilliance; the monks invented the colon, the semicolon, the comma, and the dash in short order. They had to give up the dash; the Pope declared its use sinful in 619 CE; but they invented the ampersand (&) and the asterisk (*), and were working on the apostrophe when Viking raiders sacked Clonmacnoise and took the punctuation back to Scandinavia with them. From that time punctuation has spread like high taxes from one end of the earth to the other, and yet people still do not know how to use it correctly, leading to the popularity of such usage guides as Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In other cases, punctuational overuse has led to a backlash. The constant use of colons in modern society, for example, led to a movement that demands that we rid the language of the mark entirely. On the cable channels, one can see one infomercial after another telling the gullible American viewing public how to detoxify the user’s constant use of the colon. Such extremism will not catch on with much of the public; the colon is simply too useful for anyone to do away with it entirely; but it is clear that punctuational abuse and misuse are among the largest obstacles to teaching schoolchildren how to write properly and that the schools are simply not doing enough to address this unfortunate situation.