BEST PUNCTUATION of the Millennium
Point of Order
In praise of the dot that brought sentences to their senses.
By ALBERTO MANGUEL
Diminutive as a mote of dust, a mere peck of the pen, a crumb on the keyboard, the full stop -- the period -- is the unsung legislator of our writing systems. Without it, there would be no end to the sorrows of young Werther, and the travels of the Hobbit would have never been completed. Its absence allowed James Joyce to weave "Finnegans Wake" into a perfect
circle, and its presence made Henri Michaux compare our essential being to this dot, "a dot that death devours." It crowns the fulfillment of thought, gives the illusion of conclusiveness, possesses a certain haughtiness that stems, like
Napoleon's, from its minuscule size.
Anxious to get going, we require nothing to signal our beginnings, but we need to know when to stop: this tiny memento mori reminds us that everything, ourselves included, must one day come to a halt. As an anonymous English teacher suggested in the 1680 "Treatise of Stops, Points or Pauses," a full stop is "a Note of perfect Sense, and of a perfect Sentence."
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, St. Jerome, translator of the Bible, devised a system known as per cola et commata, in which each unity of sense would be signaled 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 both a pause within the 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.
Then in 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger, grandson of the great Venetian printer to whom we owe the invention of the paperback, defined the full stop in his punctuation handbook, "Interpungendi ratio." Here, in clear and unequivocal Latin, Manutius described for the first time its ultimate role and aspect. He thought he was offering a manual for typographers; he
couldn't have known that he was granting us, future readers, the gifts of sense and music in all the literature to come: Hemingway and his staccato, Beckett and his recitativo, Proust and his largo sostenuto.
"No iron," Isaac Babel wrote, "can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place." As an knowledgment of both the power and the helplessness of the word, nothing else has served us better than this faithful and final speck.
Alberto Manguel is the author, most recently, of "A History of Reading."