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10 interesting punctuation facts you may not know

Maybe you know how to use a semi-colon or a comma, but did you know there was such a punctuation mark as an interrobang or a percontation point?

EVER wondered what some strange punctuation marks mean in written text? Or are you bored of using the same old question mark? Well, here is a list of 10 things you may not know about English punctuation marks.

1. The interrobang

I didn’t know about this intriguing punctuation symbol until a few days ago. I’m definitely going to start using it. Have you ever wanted to write out a question with great emphasis?! I know some people will do this: ?!. But that looks clumsy, doesn’t it? So, why not use an interrobang:

The interrobang. Photo: Mike Jewett from The Noun Project.

The interrobang combines the sense of doubt or incredulity created by a question while the exclamation mark shows the intense emotion or surprise of an exclamation. Marry the two, and you have the quirky interrobang.

2. Question marks and exclamation marks were once words, not punctuation marks

A lot of English is derived from Latin, and in Latin, they used to write ‘questio’ after a written question. This was shortened over time to ‘qo’, then got written with the Q over the O, which made the question-mark punctuation mark we know and love today.

The exclamation point started with the word ‘io’ which was an exclamation of joy. People started writing the word in a single space, ie, with the letters together, and it evolved into the iconic ! which is often overused today!

3. The official name for the hashtag

Most people nowadays know the # as a hashtag, which is used in social media to categorise something. It’s also used to mean a ‘number’ in text, eg, ‘that is #10 of the list’ and is used in music. Its official name is the octothorpe. The word ‘octothorpe’ is believed to have been used by the telecommunications industry when touch-tone dialling was introduced in the 1960s. We don’t know for sure where the ‘thorpe’ part comes from, but the most common belief is that it’s from the old Norse word ‘thorpe’ which means a village or farm. The ‘octo’ refers to the eight points of the symbol. #punctuationrocks

4. The history of the period / full stop

The Ancient Romans used to write in ALL CAPS without any punctuation. Eish! That would make any editor or grammar nazi cringe. Eventually, they evolved and used to add a dot between words at the top of the words, but over time, that moved down to the bottom and became what it is today.

5. Want to convey irony or sarcasm – use the percontation point

We all know what sarcasm is, but what is irony? The Collins Dictionary (HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition) defines it as ‘the humorous or mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean’.

An English printer about 500 years ago wanted to make it clear when something was ironic or sarcastic for the readers so he came up with the percontation point which is the question mark facing the opposite direction: ⸮

It lost popularity but seems to be gaining popularity again. Maybe we should start using it in WhatsApp or Instagram as sarcasm is hard to show in short communications like tweets. Isn’t everyone clever enough to make use of it nowadays⸮

6. What are the origins of the beloved comma?

The comma comes from the Greek word ‘komma’ which means ‘cut off’. So, they actually meant that the comma was cutting off the clauses of a sentence – kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? It started off as a dot in the middle of the line but evolved into the dot with a tail which we now use and adore/hate today.

7. What on earth are those two dots you find on top of some words?

The diaeresis is the name of the two dots found on words such as naïve, Noël and Chloë. The two dots are always placed over a vowel and are used to show a separation between two vowels in a word, reminding readers that the second vowel starts a new syllable. For example, it would’ve been used in the words ‘coöperate’ or ‘reïnvent’. Most forms of English don’t use this anymore except in borrowed words from other languages – as is the case of Noël and Chloë which are French names. The words that have a diaeresis are usually borrowed words we use from Dutch, Afrikaans, Catalan, French, Galician, and Spanish.

8. Ever seen the ¶ when working in Word?

This mark used to be a pilcrow – a punctuation mark that shows a new paragraph – during the Middle Ages. Instead of using line breaks or indents, which we use today, to show a new paragraph or line break, they used this symbol – but it was a work of art for them as they decorated it beautifully and made it colourful. Scribes called rubricators used a special red ink called ‘rubricāre’ to draw the pilcrow into manuscripts.

Scribes in Medieval times used the pilcrow to show a line break. Photo: Piotr Arnoldes from Pexels.

The scribes started running out of time to add in these beautiful pilcrows – possibly as written material became more in demand – so they stopped using them so much until they completely disappeared. Now, in modern times, they’ve been revived on Word-processing software on our computers.

9. The ampersand (&) was a letter of the alphabet

Do you like to use the & when you’re in a hurry? It means ‘and’ and used to be the 27th letter of the English alphabet. When children used to recite the alphabet, they would say, ‘Z and per se and.” Over time, the ‘and per se and’ morphed into ‘ampersand’ as it was a mouthful to begin with. The ampersand actually has a slightly different meaning to the straight ‘and’ in that it conveys a closer relationship between things, for example, it is used between the names of people on a credits page to show that they worked together on the project. If ‘and’ is used on the credits page, it means they worked separately on the project. How interesting is that?

10. The ‘at’ sign (@) has the funniest names around the world

The ‘at’ sign that we use nowadays in emails and to tag someone on social media is called a ‘monkey’s tail’ in Dutch, a ‘strudel’ in Israel, the ‘little dog’ in Russia, the ‘small snail’ in Italy and ‘the crazy A’ in Bosnia. The @ was used as a form of shorthand as far back as the 16th century. Some people call it the ‘at mark’ or ‘commercial at’. @Englishloversunite!


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