It’s easy to overlook the importance of empty space as a form of punctuation. Certainly, I’m guilty of giving pride of place to visible marks such as the pilcrow (¶) and interrobang (‽). But this isn’t to ignore the groundbreaking invention of the word space in the medieval period; the disappearance of the pilcrow to create the paragraph indent; or, most recently, the use of variable-length spaces as pauses in Patrick Stewart’s 2015 PhD thesis. Also recently, I was encouraged to look again at the subject of whitespace-as-punctuation by a visit to the Science Museum here in London.
First, though, it’s helpful to recap the 1200-year evolution of empty space as punctuation. Hold onto your hats.
For much of antiquity, texts were written in the traditional style of scriptio continua, or WORDSWITHOUTSPACES, that was favoured by the Greeks and Romans. Eventually, around the eighth century, Celtic monks at the fringes of what had once been the Roman Empire started to add spaces between words to ease the copying and reading of unfamiliar Latin texts.1 Later, with the arrival of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, an exponential growth in the number of texts to be finished and bound led many printers to omit certain decorative flourishes that had once been added by hand — even as the whitespace dedicated to them continued to feature in printed works. Thus, the pilcrow and other paragraph marks, such as decorative initial caps, disappeared in favour of the now-familiar paragraph indent, as seen in this article.2
And so, by the end of the fifteenth century, the hierarchy of punctuation marks from the paragraph on down was essentially fixed. Paragraphs were separated by a newline followed by an indentation;* sentences were separated by one of a number of visual marks; clauses were separated by points, slashes, and other symbols; and words were separated by simple spaces.
But that isn’t quite all there is to the story. Before the paragraph indent, before even the word space, some writers of the early Christian era experimented with a form of punctuation that they called per cola et commata — “by colons and commas”. Originating with St Jerome in the fourth century, texts arranged per cola et commata placed each sentence and clause on a new line. Where a clause was too long to fit on a single line, it was carried over the next line and indented to the right. 4 Here’s an example, from folio 17 of British Library manuscript Harley 1775, an Italian manuscript of the Four Gospels from the last quarter of the sixth century:
For those trained in the art of rhetoric, a comma was a short clause and a colon a longer one; together a sequence of commata and cola made up a complete periodos, or sentence. The prevailing method of punctuation would have been to add a middle (·), low (.) or high dot (˙) after each comma, colon and periodos respectively,5 but St Jerome, and those who followed his example, used page layout instead of visible marks to punctuate their texts. Given that punctuation began as a way for readers to insert spoken pauses in a written text, St Jerome’s innovative page layout makes a great deal of sense: here is an author inserting visible pauses in his writings to guide his readers in teasing apart their meaning.
All of this brings us to the Science Museum. I was there more or less by accident, killing some time with a friend, when we found ourselves in an exhibition called Churchill’s Scientists, about British scientific advances during WWII. As we wandered through it, I noticed a reproduction of a page from one of Winston Churchill’s speeches, and it looked mightily familiar.
It turns out that Churchill (or, perhaps, a secretary; I’m sure more knowledgeable readers will correct me) had a very particular way of laying out the notes for his speeches. You can see many examples of his typewritten notes at the Churchill Archive, but here are a couple of paragraphs from the closing section of his most famous speech, usually entitled “Their Finest Hour” from its last line, as an example:
If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed, and the life of the world may move forward into broad and sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted Science.
Now isn’t that striking? The notes for “Their Finest Hour” aren’t arranged strictly per cola et commata, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment, but the family resemblance is strong nonetheless. That resemblance becomes even more pronounced when you hear Churchill deliver this part of the speech, as in this British Pathé recording.† What you’ll notice is that when he pauses in his delivery, it is almost always at the end of a line. Only in the final lines of the second sentence above does he deviate noticeably from his per cola et commata-style layout, pausing after “protracted” and “lights”. Everywhere else, essentially, a new line signals a pause in his spoken performance.
Of course, if Churchill was aware of St Jerome’s fourth-century per cola et commata method (he was avowedly ambivalent toward Greek and Latin at school6), he did not follow it slavishly. His line breaks do not always fall where a comma, colon or semicolon might have been expected to appear. He has indented each line a little more than the last, rather than push them all to the left-hand margin, to make it easier to follow his notes as he read aloud from them. And, most obviously, the occasional stray comma has crept in, as if he could not quite bear to abandon conventional punctuation altogether.
Wherever Churchill found inspiration for his note-making technique, however, and whatever you think of the man himself, it’s difficult to argue with the results: his typewritten notes are weirdly lyrical in their layout and his speeches were undeniably effective. Per cola et commata or not, there’s a lot to be said for swapping commas, colons, and semicolons for the architectural precision of a new line of text.
- P. Saenger, “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, iss. 13, pp. 367-414, 1982. ↩︎
- A. Haslam, “Articulating meaning: paragraphs,” in Book Design, Laurence King, 2006, pp. 73-74. ↩︎
- J. Pamental, “The Life of \P: The History of the Paragraph,” Print, iss. Fall, 2015. ↩︎
- M. B. Parkes, “Antiquity: Aids for Inexperienced Readers and the Prehistory of Punctuation.” University of California Press, 1993, pp. 9-19. ↩︎
- A. J. Kemp, “The Tekhne Grammatike of Dionysius Thrax: Translated into English,” Historiographia Linguistica, vol. 13, iss. 2/3, pp. 343-363, 1986. ↩︎
- W. Churchill, “Harrow,” in A roving commission : my early life, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930, p. 17. ↩︎
- Writing in Print magazine, Jason Pamental hypothesises that the paragraph indent was joined by the blank line — another example of whitespace as punctuation — because of simple laziness. It’s easier, he writes, to hit the return key twice than it is to hit return a single time and then insert a tab or em quad at the start of the next line.3 ↩︎
- The text above is modified slightly from Churchill’s original notes in order to match the speech as he delivered it. You can also read the “substantially verbatim” speech as it was transcribed by Hansard, the official parliamentary record, which differs again. ↩︎