Pilcrows and other paragraph marks in Edwin Lewis’s History of the English Paragraph (1894). (Image courtesy of archive.org.)
Pilcrows and other paragraph marks in Edwin Lewis’s History of the English Paragraph (1894). (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

The Evolution of Punctuating Paragraphs Through 5 Specific Markers

Pilcrows and other paragraph marks in Edwin Lewis’s History of the English Paragraph (1894). (Image courtesy of archive.org.)
Pilcrows and other paragraph marks in Edwin Lewis’s History of the English Paragraph (1894). (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

If you write, you punctuate. At the very lowest level of punctuation lies the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it space that separates words; above it are the commas, colons, semicolons and dashes with which we separate clauses; and at the very top, lording it over the rest, sit the period, question mark, and exclamation mark that are used to finish off completed sentences. But punctuation doesn’t stop there. In fact, it doesn’t even start there: Before writers ever thought to separate their words with spaces or punctuate their sentences with periods, documents were routinely arranged into visible, helpful paragraphs.

1. THE PARAGRAPHOS

Paragraphoi in a contract from the second half of third century CE.
P.Mich.inv. 1930; Recto,” University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. CC BY 3.0

The story of the birth of punctuation goes like this: At the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, sometime during the third century BCE, Aristophanes, the chief librarian, was at his wits’ end. The scrolls that crossed his desk were unspaced and unpunctuated, in the fashion of the time, and were written in a script that had only a single case: there was no difference between lower- and uppercase letters so that WORDSCLAUSESANDSENTENCES ran together without breaks. Reading a text like this was an exercise in persistence and frustration.

Aristophanes’s solution was to invent what we now recognize as punctuation: he started to mark the documents he read with little inky dots—punctus, in Latin, leading to “punctuation”—that indicated short (·), medium (.) and long (˙) pauses respectively, each one wedged carefully between adjacent letters, so that reading became marginally easier. It was a tiny change with a disproportionate effect, kick-starting a continuous evolution of writing practices that have led to the spaces, punctuation marks, and other typographic conventions that define today’s written texts.

The odd thing is that punctuation had already been invented, a hundred years or more before Aristophanes’s time. At some point during the fourth century BCE, Greek readers and writers had taken to placing little horizontal lines in the left-hand margins of their documents, each one nestling under a line of text, to indicate that the line in question held some interesting change in topic. These marks were called paragraphoi, for para- ("beside") and graphein ("to write"), and they were used to call out anything from a change in subject to a new stanza of a poem or a change of speaker in a play—paragraphs, in other words, that would today be marked out with an indented or blank line. The simple stroke of the paragraphos is the earliest paragraph mark, certainly, but it is also the earliest true mark of punctuation.

2. THE PILCROW

Small red pilcrows (and, at right, a very large one) in a 13th-century manuscript written in England.
(Royal 13 A VII, f. 15. Image courtesy of the British Library.) CC0 1.0

As writers and readers experimented with the novel art of punctuation, paragraph marks branched out on their own. One of first new successors to the paragraphos was another very simple mark, an upside-down L-shaped symbol resembling the stylized gallows from a game of Hangman (Γ _ _ _ _ _ _). As simple as this new mark was, though, no one has definitively worked out how or why it came about. Its resemblance to the uppercase Greek letter gamma (Γ) has led some experts to suggest that it stands for the "g" in paragraphos, but this remains speculative at best, and the Γ has always languished in the shadow of a more famous sibling.

That sibling is the second of the paragraphos’s descendants. During the first centuries BCE and CE, writers working in Latin started to preface paragraphs with the letter K as an abbreviation for the word kaput, or "head," thus indicating that what followed was the "head" of a new argument or topic. For the Romans, however, the letter K, adopted from a pre-Latin alphabet, was increasingly considered old fashioned, and many writers preferred to use C in its place. K for kaput became C for capitulum, or "little head." As these little C-shaped marks grew ever more elaborate, they gained first one additional vertical stroke and later a second so that C became ¢ and later ¶, as seen here. This was the mark called the "pilcrow," from the Old French paragraphe and later the Old English pylcrafte, and it is the most iconic paragraph mark ever to have lived. It is still alive today, in fact, even if it no longer separates our paragraphs: click on the button marked with a in Microsoft Word and it will reveal the invisible characters within your document—the spaces, tabs, and line breaks that hold your words together.

3. DECORATED INITIAL LETTERS

A zoo-anthropomorphic initial S in a 12th-century manuscript, comprised of a human-animal hybrid. Arundel MS 98, f. 85v.
Image courtesy of the
British Library.CC0 1.0

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, writing and bookmaking retreated to the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of Christian monasteries. Here monks labored by candlelight, often without heating or even window panes to keep out the cold, to create some of the most beautiful books the world has ever seen, intricately illustrated and decorated with gold leaf. Even now, its gold untarnished by the passage of time, an illuminated manuscript is a thing to behold.

Monks were innovators when it came to marking out paragraphs. The pilcrow remained in common use, but the monks developed an array of additional techniques with which to mark paragraphs, sections, and chapters. Most simply, the first letter of a section or paragraph could be enlarged or moved out into the margin; later, more ambitious scribes created decorative initial letters that were so large and elaborate that they overshadowed the text itself. These initials came in a bewildering variety of forms: "historiated" letters depicted scenes from the associated story, while "inhabited" initials contained animal or human figures that are unrelated to the text. So-called "zoomorphic" initials were constructed from animals contorted into alphabetic shapes, and their tongue-twisting "zoo-anthropomorphic" cousins, as seen here, were composed of human and animal parts conjoined into a hybrid whole.

4. INDENTED PARAGRAPHS

Paragraph indents in the first edition of Moby-Dick, published in 1851.
Image courtesy of archive.org. Public domain.

Printing spelled the end of the traditional paragraph mark. As demand for books increased toward the end of the medieval period, both monasteries and lay bookmakers were forced to make their production more efficient. The workers who made books were arranged according to their specialties: scribes wrote the texts; miniators sketched and painted the accompanying illustrations, or miniatures; and rubricators added decorative letters, headings, and symbols in contrasting colors—usually in red ink, or rubrica. Pilcrows, which were often placed at the start of a line to indicate a new paragraph, were typical of the marks left out by scribes and added later by rubricators.

When printing arrived in Europe in the middle of the 15th century, the earliest printers confined themselves to replicating the work traditionally done by scribes. They printed their texts in black ink only, leaving spaces for illustrations and rubricated headings and symbols to be added later so that their patrons could have their books customized to their liking. The problem was that there were so many new books to be rubricated that the rubricators could not keep up; increasingly, the spaces once filled with large initial letters and decorative pilcrows were left empty, and readers began to associate the absence of a pilcrow with the start of a paragraph. The pilcrow died and the paragraph indent was born in its stead.

5. BLANK LINES

Just as printing saw the pilcrow’s end, the arrival of the Internet has ushered in changes not just to the way we mark paragraphs but also to paragraphs themselves. First, more and more websites (like this one!) are separating their paragraphs by blank lines rather than paragraph indents. This makes sense: blank lines are easier to pick out than indents when scrolling rapidly through a web page, and, without physical pages to turn, paragraph boundaries are vital in helping the reader find their place in a text. In this way, the paragraph is more important than ever.

The second change is more confusing: paragraphs are getting shorter, and for no apparent reason. News websites routinely break their stories into paragraphs of only one or two sentences each, so that the centuries-old hierarchy of section to paragraph to sentence is collapsing in on itself. Soon, the paragraph and the sentence may become one and the same thing—and what then? This may finally be the end for the 2400-year history of the paragraph mark.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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iStock
The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
iStock
iStock

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
iStock

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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