Period (.)


We can hang out here a while

In the blink of a week, we are dashing across the vast expanses of literary space (using our warped view drive), to go from last week considering one of the longest novels ever written, to this week looking at the smallest element of punctuation in English. If another language has a smaller punctuation mark than a period, no one knows, because you can’t see it.

Whence cometh this little dot of ink, and why? What we call the period in America (or a full stop in some other English-speaking countries) is the smallest conceivable punctuation mark, but that little fellow carries a lot of weight. Every written language eventually has had to develop at least some forms of punctuation, and the use of a dot to end a sentence can be traced far, far back to an early Greek system in the bygone B.C. days.

Because writing is one of the oldest human inventions, it has evolved and changed drastically over the centuries. I’m not interested in trying to discuss the history of punctuation in the two thousand years since a dot was first used, but I will say that without any punctuation, it’s much, much harder to read a text, as well as more difficult to even express ideas. Sometimes in the Middle Ages the writing even avoided blank space (also a kind of punctuation): anangelcametohimonthehill. Not too many people were reading in those days.

In terms of function, no punctuation mark is more important than a period, as it indicates a complete sentence. It’s a bit strange that in most European languages, a function as important as the end of a sentence is marked with such an insignificant dot of ink. The very importance of the period, however, may be the reason we can barely see it. Every text is filled with periods, and if it were larger and more evident, for instance, if it looked like this ◄ it might take over the page◄ Nobody would like that◄ And think of how much more space that would take up◄

During this period of reflecting on full stops, I want to focus the dot on a philosophical point. Let’s note that a sentence is the most basic unit of thought, and the simplest definition of a sentence is that it must have a subject (normally a noun) and a verb. A sentence is therefore a reflection of our most fundamental perception of the world, probably even from a few months old. We soon learn to distinguish that the world consists of separate objects; there are things out there. God knows what all those things are, but one of them is Mama. Secondly, we notice that those things move.

Things move (noun verb)—this is a basic sentence. The concept of a sentence is so important to language, that when you add an object, linguists even classify all languages as to what order these three elements occur. English is an SVO language, subject-verb-object: David drinks beer. (Or wine.)

I was looking at a website discussing punctuation that said the period is “the easiest punctuation mark to master”, which may be so, but when I was teaching first-year college writing classes, I had very many students who did not clearly know when to use a period. We even had special words for not knowing. Joining two sentences with a comma, instead of using a period for each one was called a “comma splice” and using a period before a sentence was completed was called a “sentence fragment”.

By the way, what I just did above, putting the period (and comma) outside the quotation marks is British style, which I use because it makes more sense, and if you don’t like it, maybe you should be an English major. At some future point perhaps I’ll discuss commas, but you know the comma is such a lazy thing, always stopping to take a rest. I’m a busy guy. I may not have time for commas.

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