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Q: Origins of the modern rules of English language ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: Origins of the modern rules of English language
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: obutt-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 11 Mar 2005 14:00 PST
Expires: 10 Apr 2005 15:00 PDT
Question ID: 492836
When did we start using the punctuation marks we use today? (.!?,)
When did we start labeling parts of a sentence? When, for example,
were words like "noun" and "verb" and "paragraph" first used? Were
those terms created from a desire to "teach" writing?

Subject: Re: Origins of the modern rules of English language
Answered By: leli-ga on 12 Mar 2005 07:48 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello obutt

You've asked some interesting and wide-ranging questions here.

The short answers are:

Our style of punctuation and paragraphing was established by the late 18th century.

Nouns, verbs and other parts of speech have come down to us from Latin
grammar. Roman grammar books based their system on a book used for
teaching Greek to Latin-speaking schoolboys in the 1st century BC: the
Art of Grammar by Dionysius Thrax. In the following centuries this
approach was known wherever Latin was studied. Grammatical terms
existed in English in the Middle Ages, and the first English grammar
book was published in 1586.

And now for more detail ~


Punctuation developed to help readers. Medieval writers used
punctuation to show where a reader might pause for breath, but their
marks were different from ours. For example, a long pause in a piece
of writing could be signified by three slash marks, and a short pause
by one.

The introduction of printing meant typographers started to develop new
systems. The period or full stop was one of the first punctuation
marks to be widely used, and the modern style of punctuating English
was fairly well developed by the late 17th century, and fully
established in the late 18th century.

Paragraphing developed alongside punctuation, and was another way of
making life easier for the reader. In the Middle Ages a new paragraph
was signalled by a punctuation mark called a pilcrow. By the 17th
century it was common to start paragraphs on a fresh line and indent

The word "paragraph" goes back to the ancient Greek "paragraphos"
which meant a line separating two sections of text or two speakers in
a play.

"Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the Renaissance typographer and printer .
.  used a period (.) to indicate a full stop at the end of a sentence
and a diagonal slash (/) to represent a pause.

The basic form of the question mark (?) was developed much later, in
sixteenth-century England.

. . . it was the invention of the printing press that was the catalyst
for the development of punctuation signs. Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468)
is credited with the invention of the printing press in 1436 or 1437.
Over the next two hundred years printers experimented with many signs
and symbols; but, it wasn't until the late 1600's and into the 1700's
that standardized punctuation emerged with its requisite signs and

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, quotation marks, the
apostrophe, the dash, and the exclamation point were added to the
basic set of punctuation marks in consistent use."

"All forms of punctuation became standardized with printing, but early
punctuation was more related to speaking than to reading. Rhetoric, as
the study of speech, needed marks to indicate when the speaker should
pause to give emphasis, and that was what early punctuation was based
on, rather than being related to the logical structure of written
sentences. In elementary school, we still often learn how punctuation
is used by thinking of how a sentence is spoken (thus, the injunction
to use a comma when you pause). After the invention of printing,
grammarians developed a theory of punctuation related to structure
rather than sound. While these rules of English punctuation were
pretty much established by the end of the 18th century, they are not
fixed in stone."


English grammar, including nouns and verbs, grew out of Latin grammar.
Over the centuries many English schoolboys learnt Latin and English
grammar at the same time. The grammar books they used were influenced,
directly or indirectly, by Dionysius Thrax (also called Dionysius of
Thrace), a Greek living in Rome in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

"Much weighty thought has been given to grammar and new ways of
analyzing language. Nevertheless, the grammatical analysis and
terminology devised by Dionysius Thrax (170-90BC) and passed down to
us through Latin still serves as a model. He gave us the following

    * A sentence is a combination of words expressing a complete thought.
    * A noun is a part of discourse indicating a person or thing.
    * A pronoun is a word indicative of definite persons and used in place of a
    * An article is a part of discourse . . . being placed before nouns.
    * A verb is a part of discourse . . . indicating action or being acted upon.
    * A preposition is a part of discourse placed before other words in a 
      sentence (not always true in English ).
    * A conjunction is a word conjoining or connecting thought in some order and
      filling a gap in the expression."

So, grammatical concepts like sentence, noun and verb originated more
than 2000 years ago. We can trace the words in English to the Middle
Ages. For instance, the earliest English use of the word "noun" given
by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is part of a 1398 translation
from Latin. The OED's earliest example of the word "verb" is from

A hundred years later a grammar book called "Certaine Gramm. Questions
for Exercise Young Schollers" said, "A Pronowne & a Participle may
very wel be referred to a Nowne" The OED dates this to around 1590.

This is just too late to qualify for the title of "first English
grammar book", which is given to a "Bref Grammar for English"
published by Bullokar in 1586.

There are a few more excerpts and links below which will lead to
further information.

When you've had a chance to look through this, please get back to me
if you need any clarification.

Best wishes - Leli

The first complete Greek grammar, written by Dionysus Thrax in the 1st
century BC, was a model for Roman grammarians, whose work led to the
medieval and Renaissance vernacular grammars.

"Bullokar is worthy of note for another reason: in 1586 he published
Bref Grammar for English?the first English grammar book. It was
probably intended as an introduction to the subsequent study of Latin

"The study of grammar began with the ancient Greeks, who engaged in
philosophical speculation about languages and described language

It is to the Latin grammarians or, more correctly, to the Greek
grammarians, upon whose labors those of the Latin writers were based
that we owe the classification of the subjects with which grammar is
commonly supposed to deal. The grammar of Dionysius Thrax, grammar
which he wrote for Roman schoolboys in the time of Pompey, has formed
the starting-point for the innumerable school-grammars which have
since seen the light, and suggested that division of the matter
treated of which they have followed.

"Ancient Greek manuscripts separated units of text by a horizontal
line called a paragraphos, so those units came to be called
"paragraphs." The policy of indenting the beginning of paragraphs was
standard by the 17th century; the Greeks sometimes began paragraphs
with an outdent, sometimes called a hanging indent."

"Punctuation / "pointing": the word "punctuation" is derived from the
Latin word "punctus," translated "point"; punctuation is literally the
use of "points," and, until the sixteenth century or so, the English
word for punctuation was "pointing." Pointing was originally done in
liturgical manuscripts as an aid in reading aloud, especially by those
whose knowledge of the language which they were reading might be less
than perfect; thus, pointing for reading aloud tends to correspond
quite closely to marking "pauses for breath," and it may, in fact, owe
much to musical notation for "breaths.""

"The word comma comes from the Greek komma ("segment" or "clause"),
indicating a part of the sentence. Fifteenth century writers also
called the comma a tittle, from the Latin word titulus ("label" or
"title").  In early medieval manuscripts, commas appeared as a full
slash mark or solidus (/)."

Medieval punctuation
obutt-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $15.00
Leli: Thanks so much for your answer. It was far more comprehensive
than anything I expected! I look forward to working with you in the
future as I delve further into this area. Thanks again.

Subject: Re: Origins of the modern rules of English language
From: myoarin-ga on 13 Mar 2005 07:32 PST
Wow, Leli, that was really interesting and exhaustive!
Thanks from a bystander  - and growing fan of yours :)
Subject: Re: Origins of the modern rules of English language
From: leli-ga on 14 Mar 2005 02:00 PST
Mitch - Thank you very much for your generosity!

I'm glad you liked the answer. Originally I thought I would respond to
your question more briefly, but I got sidetracked pursuing some of the
details. This happens to me at Google Answers from time to time!

It would be a pleasure to work with you on a future question.

Thanks again - Leli
Subject: Re: Origins of the modern rules of English language
From: leli-ga on 14 Mar 2005 02:01 PST
Myoarin - Thank you! - Leli

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