A Short History of the Comma

Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about commas this morning. I know, weird, but there you go. Anyhoo, did you ever wonder who was the very first person to actually insert a comma into a portion of text? I have. I often wonder about strange things like, who was the first person to eat a lobster? Or who said the words, “back in the day” the first time. But I digress, today’s topic is of course the comma and the history there of. An amazing little invention the comma, merely a squiggle but one that can wreck havoc in the minds of authors everywhere and spur hours of debate among editors. (See my editor’s blog The Roving Editor for proof).
Seems to me I remember being told at one point that I should insert a comma wherever I take a breath or a natural pause. Sounds simple enough but woefully inaccurate as breathing can be something of a subjective, personal preference.
Although that being said the comma did have its origins in breathing—so to speak. You see, back in the day, stories and such were not written down or bound into books because most people could not read. So story was an oral tradition and readers or actors would naturally insert a comma or breath or pause as they recited reams of memorized text. Hence the birth of the comma. According to my research the actual mark, the squiggle or half a squiggle, you can’t really say that a comma is a full squiggle can you, was invented by Aristophanes of Bysantium in 200 B.C. That’s Before Christ not Before Commas. It seems Aristophanes devised a three-part system of dramatic notation that told actors when and where to breathe as they said their lines.
Here’s a nifty quote: Some dude named Richard Mulcaster (obviously an anal retentive) said the comma is a “small crooked point, which in writing followeth some small branch of sentence, and in reading, warneth us to rest there and help our breath a little.”
Uhm, seems to me that could be where the whole put a comma in where you breathe thing got started. He said that way back in 1582.
But further research uncovered that the comma also has its beginnings in Christianity. Of course, we love rules. But apparently St. Augustine was miffed and totally chagrined at the thought that Bible passages could be read incorrectly, and insisted that the placement of commas in Bible text must be in accordance with church doctrine so things would not be misinterpreted.
So there you have it, a short history of the comma. I don’t know about you but I still have trouble with them. I tend to insert commas wherever the heck I please and that my friends in not a good thing. Ask my editor.

1 comment:

Floss said...

Your last sentence before "Ask my editor" is, obviously, a case in point. Friends like Rosiekins speak without commas, pauses or breaths, so when she writes it would be correct to eliminate the troublesome squiggles were it up to her. I can bet her editors find it irksome.

I'm middle of the road and tend to use more than most writers.