“Why is it called ‘punctuation’?”

Ben Jonson loved the colon so much he incorporated it into his signature. (Image via Michael Prescott, who uses it to present part of the on-going Shakespeare authorship controversy. Click Ben Jonson’s signature to read Prescott’s take on it.)

Lately, The Five-Year-Old has been saving some of her best questions for the bedtime fending-off-sleep process. These questions nearly all have to do with the naming of things. “Why are monarchs called ‘monarchs’?” “Why are beetles called ‘beetles’?” And today’s question… “Why is it called ‘punctuation’?”

As far as I can tell, the word “punctuation” dates only to 1530, and comes from the medieval Latin punctuatio, which means a “marking or pointing.”

There is some evidence for punctuation being used in ancient Greece as a rhetorical tool to help a speaker know when and how long to pause while reading a prepared speech. But as anyone who has read Chaucer can tell you, punctuation didn’t really catch on until much much later. (Chaucer only occasionally speckled his verses with periods, I suspect because he thought they looked pretty.)

In 1640, playwright Ben Jonson saved punctuation from life as a decorative afterthought by devoting an entire chapter of his English Grammar (1640) to the use of such critical punctuation elements as the “pause” (our colon), the “interrogation” (our question mark), and the “admiration” (our exclamation point).

Ben Jonson loved punctuation so much he used the colon in his signature. I suspect, if he had anything to say about it, National Punctuation Day (September 24) would be a global event.

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