COLUMN Of Dots and Stops and Angle Brackets

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

An otherwise ordinary bit of research recently took me on a circuitous route through Web pages, a shelf full of reference books, and appeals to trusted advisers, always just an e-mail away.

My copy of the 1880 U.S. Census arrived last year, and I eagerly popped in the first CD to see if my kin were in there. The credibility of a genealogical resource that trades on accuracy took a hit when I discovered a table of symbols. Certain information, it said, would be set off by .

And were labeled “carrots.”

Carrots? I know they’re not “carrots.” I grabbed my well-worn dictionary but could not find what we do call them. The little point ^ above the 6 on the keyboard is a “carat,” isn’t it? Or is it “karat”? Hmmm.

Spelled either way, “karat” means a unit of weight for precious stones. But its definition as a proofreading symbol was omitted. Checked further in my rather vast collection of references, to no avail. I’d have to contact my Trusted Advisers.

Longtime Trusted Adviser/Editor Dave Hamrick was going to Alabama with SCUBA-gear on his knee and said his mind was blank.

But Trusted Adviser Joan “Once an English teacher, always an English teacher” Houghton wrote back succinctly, “A ‘caret’ or ^ is the mark used at the point of an insertion.”

Well, duh, anybody can look things up when they spell them right.

And when I finally did that, of course, I learned more than I expected to. I was reminded that ^ is also called a circumflex and controls the pronunciation of certain vowels. The term, however, is not exclusive to the ^ according to my Webster’s, but applies also to the tilde (~) and another little curved dooflickus not appearing on my keyboard.

The sideways use of the caret in math has forever meant “larger than.” Their current use in electronic communication, as referring to a previous e-mail or containing a URL is of relatively recent coin.

But if not “carets,” what are they called? Returns are trickling in. Trusted Adviser of Trusted Adviser Hamrick, an editor who does technical stuff for Delta Air Lines, told him they are called “angle brackets.” I had found the same on one Web site I found, but rejected it. “Angle brackets” makes me think of hardware.

Found another Web site that calls [ and ] just plain “brackets,” and that { these } are “braces.” This source also subscribes to the “angle brackets” theory, but became suspect to me when I noticed that they favored British terms.

I’ve always deferred to the Brits where our mother tongue is concerned – they invented it, after all – but I draw the line at calling quotation marks “inverted commas” and periods “full stops.” A full stop may be a useful traffic or music term, but lacks something when used for “period.” Imagine saying to your whining pre-adolescent, “You’re not going to an R-rated film with your friends. Full Stop!”

Still, “angle brackets” seems to have won consensus.

As usual, I got caught up in the history of punctuation and counted it time well spent. Greek text, it seems, was written in blocks in which you read a line left to right, drop to the end of the next line and read it to the left, then the next from left to right again, and so on. An illustration, using English words, comes from a 1990 article by Judith Stone:





A lack of punctuation may have been the least of their problems: Sometimes there were not even spaces between words.

The earliest punctuation was attributed to a 3rd century B.C. Alexandrian librarian named Aristophanes (not the playwright) who came up with commas, colons and periods. But in the absence of printing and the consistency that it fostered, his invention did not catch on for quite some time.

He did somewhat better with his system of dots used to separate words into groups to indicate where a person reading aloud should pause for emphasis. A Roman scribe adopted that system for his writings. He called the dots “puncti,” or “points,” from which we get the word “punctuation.”

In any case, until about the 9th century, punctuation was used irregularly, if at all. Around the 11th century, hyphens were introduced to indicate that a word was continued on the next line, although not necessarily between syllables.

Early punctuation was based more on the spoken word than on the printed word. After the invention of printing, grammarians took over and it came to be related to sentence structure rather than sound alone.

English punctuation was well established by the end of the 18th century, but is still not fixed in stone. Like language itself, albeit more slowly, punctuation changes.

The last known intentional addition to the inventory – the interrobang – was attempted in 1962, and was no doubt fended off by the diligence of editors who turn apoplectic over plain old explanation points.


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