“Up until this time, most marks of puncutation had been elocutionary, meant to guide one in reading the text aloud. Mostly this had to do with where the speaker should pause in his/her delivery. Punctuation had no connection to meaning. Early (pre-1500 AD) punctuation was called “pointing” because it was all about “points” (“puntus” in Latin). These points in the text were aids to readers to control their breathing, especially when singing the words in church. There were many kinds of points — elevatus, flexus, interrogativus, suspensiva — but they weren’t used consistently and they were only vaguely related to the puncutation we know today. Still, they were a start.”  (Wetink)


We punctuate our speech with pauses to separate our ideas.  We use vocal tones to indicate our meanings.


Writing attempts to preserve the spoken word, both what is said and how it is said.     


To determine what punctuation to use with a group of words, say them aloud in a natural manner.  Where and how you pause will reveal the punctuation required.


Tone of voice will determine the punctuation that is needed at the end of a sentence.  Train your ear for this purpose.


If the tone of voice rises with emphasis at the end of the sentence, an exclamation mark is used.  If the tone of voice falls at the end of a sentence, a question mark is used.  If the tone of voice remains level at the end of a sentence, a period is used.  


Short sentences allow readers to see the end punctuation and to pitch their voices accordingly.


Simple and direct writing requires nothing more than commas and periods.  Such writing is easy to understand.  It is also the easiest to read aloud.


The standard use of punctuation changes slowly over time, as does the pronunciation, spelling, and meaning of words.  To determine appropriate punctuation, answer this question:  “Does this make sense when I hear it?”


Consider the semi-colon (;).  The semi-colon indicates a longer pause than the breathing rhythm pause of a comma, but not so long as a full stop (as with a period).  Again, it is dictated by the breathing rhythm of speech.


The semi-colon is used to indicate the alignment of contrasting ideas within a single statement.  It is also used to separate groupings of particulars, where another comma would be insufficient. 


  • When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835 – 1910)


  • For the Universe has three children, born at one time, which reappear under different names in every system of thought, whether they are called cause, operation and effect; or, more poetically, Jove, Pluto, Neptune; or, theologically, the Father, the Spirit and the Son; but which we will here call the Knower, the Doer and the Sayer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)      


As we speak, we insert related information into the flow of ideas.  These are parenthetical insertions.  The relative importance of these is indicated by our tone of voice.


Minor information (incidental detail) is delivered relatively gently.  In writing, minor parenthetical insertions are indicated with brackets (parentheses).


  • At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 – 1882)


Major parenthetical information is delivered relatively vigorously.  In writing, major parenthetical insertions are indicated by dashes.  These may be in the middle or at the end of a sentence.  Note that an end dash may be substituted by, or for, a colon (:). 


  • Literature – creative literature – unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable.

Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)


  • I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind – sex and the dead.

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)


  • The Day of Judgment is an important notion:  but that Day is always with us.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)


In speech, we gather breath before launching a list.  This pause alerts the listener to pay attention.  In writing we indicate this pause with a colon. 


  • There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Benjamin Disraeli (1884 – 1881)


When speaking, we let it be known when we are quoting others.  In writing, quotations can be shown in various ways.


Quotation marks are optional.  They may be used singly or as pairs (‘thus’ and “so”), or not at all.  Whichever you choose, be consistent.


Drevitts got frightened when he found they were both dead.  Hell Jimmy, he said, you oughtn’t to have done it.  There’s liable to be a hell of a lot of trouble. 

– They’re crooks, ain’t they? said Boyle.  They’re wops, ain’t they?  Who the hell is going to make any trouble?

– That’s all right maybe this time, said Drevitts, but how did you know they were wops when you bumped them?

Wops, said Boyle, I can tell wops a mile off.

Earnest Miller Hemingway (1899 – 1961) 




How did Punctuation Originate and Evolve?  

The mysterious origins of punctuation

The English Project’s History of English Punctuation