A Reader on Reading, Alberto Manguel’s latest book of essays arrived recently. The collection is delightfully eclectic and includes a consideration of the origin of the full stop.
The need to indicate the end of a written phrase is probably as old as writing itself but the solution, brief and wonderful, was not set down until the Italian Renaissance. For ages, punctuation had been a desperately erratic affair. Already in the first century A.D., the Spanish author Quintilian (who had not read Henry James) had argued that a sentence, as well as expressing a complete idea, had to be capable of being delivered in a single breath. How that sentence should be ended was a matter of personal taste, and for a long time scribes punctuated their texts with all manner of signs and symbols, from a simple blank space to a variety of dots and slashes. In the early fifth century, Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible, devised a system, known as per cola et commata, in which each unity of sense would be signalled by a letter jutting out of the margin, as if beginning a new paragraph. Three centuries later, the punctus or dot, was used to indicate a pause within a sentence and the sentence’s conclusion. Following such muddled conventions, authors could hardly expect their public to read a text in the sense they had intended.