Origins of the semicolon?

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So where did the semicolon actually come from? I was writing a small article on the character for my new pet project and I realised that it’s not that clear.

If you try googling, you will most likely find the answer given in Wikipedia or a copy of that article. They are claiming that it was Aldus Manutius who first used the semicolon in the way we are using it. The argument is based on a book on punctuation by Lynne Truss. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve gathered that she says that the mark surfaces in 1494. But I’m not going to believe a journalist right away on matters of typographic history. With my experience from newspaper houses, I tend to be a little suspicious of them…

Brinhurst1 mentions that the roots of the semicolon can be found in the scribal practice of manuscripts. But that is a pretty vague comment. Does he mean that the roots of using punctuation similarly to our ways lies in the manuscripts? Or does he mean that the graphical mark was invented back then?

So, let’s take a look at the book Epigrammaton that was printed in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, set in Griffo’s famous italic (see detail below). It seems that in this book, printed seven years after the semicolon is supposed to emerge, Aldus is using it as a way of indicating abbreviations.

The text on first two lines says (from The Latin Library):

Viuebant laceri membris stillantibus artus,
inque omni nusquam corpore corpus erat.

This kind of abbreviations were normal in medieval manuscripts. So here it would seem that Aldus is following those traditions.

Going through the works of Aldus online reveals that it was Bembo’s book De Aetna where the first printed semicolon appeared in 1494. But it seems that Aldus does not just come up with this new way of puctuating text and start using it from then on. The character operates both as a punctuation and a sign of abbreviation. But where did Aldus get the character? And when does it loose the abbreviation function?

Canadian Associate Professor of English, Stephen Reimer has a pretty extensive website on manuscript studies. According to him there were several characters that were used in manuscripts for abbreviations, including an inverted semicolon and some marks that were similar to it. He claims that the modern use of the semicolon was invented in the late 16th century.

This is getting interesting. I need to wake up and get to the library. What a nice way to start a week, eh?

  1. Bringhurst, R. (2002/1992) The Elements of Typographic Style. 2.5 edition. Hartley & Marks, Vancouver. p. 317
    [⇧ back]

9 thoughts on “Origins of the semicolon?”

  1. I’ve read Truss’s book. In addition to claiming that the semicolon was invented by Aldus she more or less claims that he and his son developed all modern use of punctuation. What’s sad is that this isn’t even the worst of the problems with the book, but that’s unrelated.

    1. Thanks for dropping by and commenting on this! I had largely forgotten the whole issue.

      I actually still haven’t read that book. I browsed through it at some point in a book store. But it just felt too flimsy. The kind of popular non-fiction, where the emphasis is clearly just on the popular.

  2. How exciting to stumble upon a current conversation about the origins of the semicolon! I’m a teacher, and am putting together a lesson on the epic narrative of punctuation. (Thanks, Google!)

    I’d love to figure out exactly what our dear friend Aldus (whose baby Truss regrets not having had the chance to bring to term…) was up to when he invented the semicolon — if in fact we think he did!

    Any progress on this? I’ve got a copy of Pause and Effect from an academic library, but so far am only through periods & commas.

    1. Hi Brandon, thanks for dropping by!

      No, unfortunately I haven’t progressed with this. I wrote this waaay back when I was doing my MA in History (& Theory). Nowadays I’m mostly engaged with contemporary issues instead of historical research.

      But I agree that it would be great to have a proper answer to the origin of the semicolon. But it might be harder to find that what we think, because we need to separate between the character – the graphic symbol – and “semicolon the punctuation mark” as we define the concept today. Not distinguishing between these two is probably why we have authors disagreeing on such seemingly simple issue.

      So if you do find it out, I would love to hear it.

  3. I don’t know why hasn’t anyone mentioned the authoritative book on the subject titled, “Pause and Effect?”

    1. That is probably because we are, or at least I am, merely an amateur in this particular sub-field. Thank you for bringing this up!

      Can you enlighten us on the matter? Does M.B. Parkes provide us with a definitive answer in his book?

      1. I am sorry, I cannot give you a definitive answer; I read the book about 15 years ago, and I still have it my library. Except presently I am in Parma, Italy, and my home is in the States. But, as I remember it, Lynne Truss had said some laudatory  things about the book, and so she must have read it.

        Nonetheless, use of semicolon must have preceded Aldine Press, of which  Aldus Manutius set up and started printing books at the end of the 15th century.  Parkes’ book, Pause and Effect,  explores punctuation going back, let’s say, to Antiquity, and includes manuscripts, also—things are often more complicated than they seem.

        As being an amateur goes, I have merely an affinity for languages, but spent my professional life in an unrelated industry, and English is my second language.

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