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Punctuation is everything in written language other than the actual letters or numbers. Punctuation marks are symbols that correspond to neither sounds of a language nor to words and phrases, but which serve to indicate the structure and organization of writing, as well as intonation and pauses to be observed when reading aloud.

In English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example, “woman, without her man, is nothing,” and “woman: without her, man is nothing,” have greatly different meanings, as do “eats shoots and leaves” and “eats, shoots and leaves.”

The rules of punctuation vary with language, location and time, and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author or editor’s choice. Tachygraphic language forms, such as those used in online chat and text messages, may have wildly different rules.

The earliest writing had no capitalization, no spaces and no punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics. Expanding the use of writing to more abstract concepts required some way to disambiguate meanings. Until the 18th century, punctuation was principally an aid to reading aloud. After that time its development was as a mechanism for ensuring that the text made sense when read silently.

Punctuation developed dramatically when large numbers of copies of the Christian Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud and the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks and an early version of initial capitals. St Jerome and his colleagues, who produced the Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin, developed an early system. This was considerably improved on by Alcuin. The marks included the forward slash and dots in different locations. The dots were centered in the line, raised or in groups.

The use of punctuation was not standardized until after the invention of printing. Credit for introducing a standard system is generally given to Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They popularized the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, invented the semicolon, made occasional use of parentheses and created the modern comma by lowering the virgule.

The standards and limitations of evolving technologies have exercised further pragmatic influences. For example, minimisation of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of expensive non reusable ribbon as did a capital letter.

Although texts in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages were often left unpunctuated until the modern era, there has been evidence of punctuation usage in ancient China since the 3rd century BC. In unpunctuated texts, the grammatical structure of sentences in classical writing is inferred from context. Most punctuation marks in modern Chinese, Japanese and Korean have similar functions to their English counterparts, however, they often look different and have different customary rules.

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