Two weeks ago, I published a post regarding a certain traumatic childhood experience. The sheer weight of that memory upon my consciousness encouraged, nay, forced me to explore the different punctuation systems between the United States and Great Britain, especially concerning quotation marks. The following is the battle's first volley.
First, we delve into the history. Interestingly, punctuation started in order to help people read out loud. Originally, punctuation marks informed the reader when to breathe. This helped to avoid the reader passing out and leaving his audience hopelessly uninformed. Here is a date that every person in the Western world should know by heart: 1452. What happened in 1452, you ask? Johannes Gutenberg began printing the Gutenberg Bible on his printing press, which promptly changed the course of history. All of a sudden, a lot more people were reading.
According to Lynne Truss in her fantastic book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in 1566, just one hundred years after the Gutenberg Bible, Aldus the Younger "was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax" (78). A bold statement indeed. Instead of punctuation primarily informing the reader when to take a breath, like a rest in music, punctuation functioned to aid the reader in understanding the meaning of the sentence. Aldus the Younger was well-qualified to make such a claim. His father, Aldus the Elder, invented both the semicolon and italics, which means every English major in the world should have a serious crush on Aldus the Elder. Without him, however would we explicate our most complicated points?
If you don't believe me about the relationship between punctuation and understanding the meaning of a sentence, let's take a pretty common punctuation example. A teacher asked his class to punctuate the sentence "woman without her man is nothing." Half the class wrote "Woman: without her, man is nothing." The other half wrote, "Woman, without her man, is nothing."
Okay so anyway, back to quotation marks. According to M.B. Parkes in his book Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (which is a pretty long, complicated book for an introduction, although it does contain a lot of pretty pictures), the most ancient form of the quotation mark, which Parkes calls a "diple," looked like this > and indicated quotations from the Bible (27). Eventually, the mark shifted to the " we are familiar with today, and was placed in the text's margins somewhere close to the Scriptural citation. This system still confused people, because it was not always clear where citations started and ended. Thus, Parkes says, "Towards the end of the sixteenth century the comma-marks representing the diple were removed from the margins and set within the page measure" (58).
Hold on, we're not quite done. Somehow, diples started to indicate direct speech, not just Scripture. Although at first quotations were authoritative in nature, like quoting Martin Luther or Augustine in a theological treatise, eventually the diples were used to indicate a direct speech from any Joe Sixpack. However, some people employed italics in the same way. Diples and italics waged an epic battle over which one would signal quotations to the reader. By the end of the 18th century, diples had overwhelmingly won the day.
Some more questions to be answered in following posts: where the hell did "air quotes" come from? Why do the British occasionally use single inverted commas to indicate quotations? How did the different punctuation systems emerge?