The use of punctuation in the Western world dates back to the Greeks and Romans, who began introducing characters in texts to be read out loud in order to mark the natural pauses to be made by the speaker. Probably the earliest punctuation mark (and certainly the most beautiful) to enter existence was the fleuron or hedera (❦/❧) in the second century BC, used to signalise paragraph breaks. As the Bible spread throughout Europe with the rise of Christianity, so too did the need for punctuation that would make it easier to understand the holy text. The most important, and today potentially most overlooked of these, isn’t a punctuation mark per se, but the absence of a mark: the space, which frames words as separate entities.
Punctuation continued to grow and expand throughout Europe, giving rise to the marks that we are most familiar with – such as the modern comma ( , ), full stop ( . ), colon ( : ) and quotation marks (“ ”) – as well as some that we in the English-speaking world are less familiar with, such as the Georgian word divider ( ჻ ), French guillemets (« ») and the Spanish inverted question mark ( ¿ ).
In English, there was little rhyme or reason to the way people punctuated until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. (Chaucer, for example, used little more than a full stop at the end of verse lines.) The explosion in the number of books being printed resulted in an urgent need for a standardised system of punctuation. However, much like in the case of English spellings, this standardisation would have to wait until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was then that polymaths began their scramble to systematise the world, resulting in encyclopaedias and, ultimately, dictionaries, which finally brought some order to the multitudinous different spellings of common English words.
Many Germans will tell you that there are no rules for comma use in English. However, although their use is perhaps not as rigidly regulated in English as in German, the English language does indeed have rules for commas – the quandary lies in choosing which ones to follow. This is because, as in almost every other area of the English language – from vocabulary to spelling, from grammar to abbreviations – styles differ on either side of the Atlantic. For instance, the American style prefers the serial comma, where a comma follows the second to last object in a list of three or more items, while the British style does without. Ironically, the exception to this rule in the United Kingdom is the Oxford comma, which, unlike Oxford English, is used only by the Oxford University Press. Another main difference between American and British punctuation is the use of quotation marks and their relation to other punctuation marks: whereas US English always places commas and full stops inside double quotation marks, UK English uses either double or single quotation marks, and only places those punctuation marks inside them if they are part of the quote itself.
The reason for this divergence is that the standardisation of punctuation in English-speaking countries as we know it today followed the invention of steam-driven printing presses and the emergence of giant publishing houses in New York and London. But, while punctuation conventions spread from New York to California and from London to Edinburgh, they were unable to make the leap over the pond, which is why there are now two styles of punctuation: the British style and the American style. However, what was once a formidable distance that took weeks to negotiate can now be traversed digitally in a matter of seconds. The result is that these rules and differences are softening, and the great divergence in punctuation that began in the nineteenth century looks set to re-converge in the twenty-first.