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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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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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