Blog Grammar Rules What Is Punctuation?

What Is Punctuation?

Krystal N. Craiker

Krystal N. Craiker

Author and Freelance Writer

Published Jul 01, 2022

what is punctuation

We all learned how to use punctuation marks in school, everything from question marks to quotation marks.

But what is punctuation? Punctuation is a series of symbols and marks that make written language easier to read.

We use punctuation marks to denote pauses, separate elements of sentences, or add emphasis to parts of our writing.

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into what exactly punctuation is, why it’s important, and where it came from.

Contents:
  1. Where Did Punctuation Come From?
  2. The Importance of Punctuation
  3. What Are the 14 Different Punctuation Marks?
  4. Conclusion: What Is Punctuation?

Where Did Punctuation Come From?

Written language existed long before punctuation. When punctuation marks showed up, they were often used sporadically.

The earliest known example of punctuation comes from the Mesha Stele, also called the Moabite Stone. This 9th century Canaanite stone told the story of the god of Moab. There are dots and lines separating words and sections.

Punctuation only increased slightly over the next few centuries. By about the 5th century BC, the Greeks occasionally used a dot-system punctuation. These were speech marks that told oral performers where to pause.

Later, the Greeks also began to use paragraph marks and an ancient form of quotation marks.

In Asia, the earliest punctuation dates from the 3rd century BC. Some Chinese writing from this era had marks for full stops and ends of chapters.

Punctuation evolved as language, writing, and printing technology changed to give us our modern punctuation marks in English.

The Importance of Punctuation

To fully answer the question “What is punctuation?” we need to understand why it matters.

Punctuation is an important part of English grammar and mechanics because it expresses the elements of speech that aren’t represented by words.

When we speak, we use pauses and asides. We change our intonation and our volume. We use gestures and facial expressions. These are all parts of spoken language, and they can be hard to convey in writing.

That’s where punctuation comes in. We can use an exclamation mark to show strong emotions because we can’t write our intonation and body language.

A question mark tells us that we’re asking a question, not making a statement.

We can express asides with a quotation mark or a bracket. Dashes and hyphens can connect ideas, separate thoughts, and add emphasis when used correctly.

Commas separate items like independent clauses, lists, and introductory phrases. They help our brains slow down to comprehend what we’re reading.

Every punctuation mark has at least one specific purpose in the English language. These form crucial elements of grammar. Punctuation isn’t optional, especially in formal writing.

Of course, sometimes people omit punctuation in informal writing. But this makes it hard to read. Without punctuation, you run the risk of losing your intended meaning, which leads to miscommunication.

A grammar guru, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.
Try it for free!
ProWritingAid

What Are the 14 Different Punctuation Marks?

Have you ever wondered how many types of punctuation there are? In English, there are fourteen major punctuation marks.

Let’s check out what these are.

  1. Period .
  2. Question mark ?
  3. Exclamation point !
  4. Quotation marks “ ”
  5. Parentheses ( )
  6. Brackets [ ]
  7. Ellipsis . . .
  8. Comma ,
  9. Semi-colon ;
  10. Colon :
  11. Apostrophe ’
  12. Hyphen -
  13. Dash – or —
  14. Slash /

The 14 punctuation marks

The first three marks (period/full stop, question mark, and exclamation point) are called terminal marks. This means they end sentences.

Parentheses and brackets are pairs and require two parts: an open and a close.

Quotes usually require an open quotation mark and end quotation mark unless the quoted material is longer than one paragraph. Then only the final paragraph will have a closed quotation mark.

There are two types of dashes in English: the en dash and the em dash. These have separate functions, so you might see them listed as separate types of punctuation. The en dash (–) usually shows a connection, while the em dash (—) usually sets information apart.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of punctuation, however. These are the fourteen most common punctuation symbols, but there are others that we sometimes use.

Angle brackets < > are rarely used, but sometimes they denote foreign speech in writing.

We used to use angle brackets to set apart a web address or email address in the early days of the internet, but that is not a common convention anymore. They are still used in computer programming, though.

Another rarely used punctuation mark is the brace: { }. Braces are like brackets, and in writing, they are used to express a list of equal choices. This isn’t common. It’s more common to see them in mathematics or musical notations.

The backslash \ isn’t a true English punctuation mark. It’s used in computer programming languages, but it has no uses in formal or informal English writing.

Some people recognize the interrobang ‽ as a punctuation mark. This is a combination of the exclamation mark and the question mark. But you can achieve the same meaning by writing: ?!

The paragraph symbol ¶ was once widely used, but most people don’t recognize it as a punctuation mark anymore.

As you can see, there are many punctuation marks in English, and their usage continues to change over time.

Conclusion: What Is Punctuation?

With so many punctuation marks, it’s easy to get confused about how to use them. You can use ProWritingAid’s punctuation checker to ensure you’re using punctuation correctly in your writing.

ProWritingAid adding a question mark to a qeustion

The symbols we use to mark pauses, tone, and more are a vital part of good writing. Punctuation has a long history, and it continues to evolve as our language changes.


Take your writing to the next level:

20 Editing Tips From Professional Writers

20 Editing Tips from Professional Writers

Whether you are writing a novel, essay, article, or email, good writing is an essential part of communicating your ideas.

This guide contains the 20 most important writing tips and techniques from a wide range of professional writers.

Subscribe for writing hacks, special offers and free stuff
We will not share your details
ProWritingAid
Have you tried  ProWritingAid  yet? What are you waiting for? It's the best tool for making sure your copy is strong, clear, and error-free!
Krystal N. Craiker

Krystal N. Craiker

Author and Freelance Writer

Krystal N. Craiker is an author and freelance writer. She is the author of the Scholars of Elandria fantasy series. When she isn't writing, you can find her playing board games and volunteering. Krystal lives in Texas with her husband and two adorable dogs. Visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

Log in
to your account to leave a comment or fill in your details below to comment as a guest.

Great Writing, Made Easier.

A grammar checker, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.

Try it for free today.

Sign up