Symbols and Punctuation

  1. letter b, cursive

    A Short History of the Letter B

    The letter B was part of the Phoenician alphabet more than 3000 years ago in 1000 BCE. At that time, the letter was called beth and looked a little different, but it made the sound of b and was second in the alphabet. The shape of the letter resembled the floor plan of a house, and the word beth meant “house.” This is pictured below. In Hebrew, the letter was called beth, bet, or bayt which also …

  2. hand-drawn letter A

    The Animal That Inspired the Letter A

    There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding the letter A. From its prestigious first place position to its interesting shape, tracing the first letter of the English alphabet uncovers a history that begins with, of all things, an ox. The letter A is derived from the Phoenician letter aleph—a western Semitic word referring to 

  3. apostrophe

    Apostrophes 101

    The apostrophe may be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in English—there are even websites dedicated to recording its misuse. Most punctuation marks fall between words to separate ideas or grammatical clauses, but the apostrophe is used within words and to combine multiple words. This small mark has two primary uses, signifying either 1. omitted letters or 2. possession. Some common English words can be combined …

  4. hyphen, typewriter

    How Do You Use a Hyphen?

    The hyphen, along with its cousins the en and em dash, may be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in English. Hyphens are used to join parts of a word or compound phrase, as in ex-wife, full-length mirror, and by-the-book negotiations. As the Chicago Manual of Style puts it, “Far and away the most common spelling questions for writers and editors concern compound terms—whether to spell …

  5. ampersand

    What Character Was Removed from the Alphabet?

    Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Dolce & Gabbana: the ampersand today is used primarily in business names, but that small character was once the 27th part of the alphabet. Where did it come from though? The origin of its name is almost as bizarre as the name itself. The shape of the character (&) predates the word ampersand by more than 1,500 years. In the …

  6. handwriting

    Take Time to Celebrate a Dying Art: Handwriting

    January 23 marks an obscure holiday that Dictionary.com, despite being a website, fully endorses: National Handwriting Day. Handwriting Day is not just a holiday dedicated to penmanship. Today is about you, and what makes you you. Your handwriting is unique and it is personal. It is as important and distinctive as your fingerprints. It doesn’t matter if it looks like chicken scratch or like Spencerian …

  7. graphology, handwriting, penmanship

    Does Your Handwriting Really Say Something About Your Personality?

    Graphologists, or self-proclaimed handwriting experts, claim that it does. Specifically they claim that individuals who share certain personality traits write in a similar fashion, so graphologists analyze handwriting to deduce the character traits of the writer. In the early 1900s, Milton Newman Bunker invented the most common graphology technique called graphoanalysis. (Other methods of graphology predate Bunker’s work.) His approach relies on the stroke shape …

  8. Is Text Messaging Ruining English?

    With every generation come cries that teenagers are destroying the language with their newfangled slang. The current grievance harps on the way casual language used in texts and instant messages inhibits kids from understanding how to write and speak “properly.” While amateur language lovers might think this argument makes sense, experts say this is not at all the case. In fact, linguists say teenagers, far …

  9. slash, typewriter, question mark

    More Thoughts On the Nonstandard Uses of “Slash”

    A couple weeks ago Anne Curzan wrote an article for the Lingua Franca blog about new slang uses of the word slash. This article particularly interested me because I, like her students, have been using the slash in these ways for the last five-plus years. As a linguist slash huge nerd, the first thing I did after reading Curzan’s article was search my personal corpus …

  10. How do you use this slippery piece of punctuation: the slash?

    The slash (/)—sometimes called a slant, a solidus, a stroke, or a virgule—is a commonly employed symbol in the English language. Whatever you want to call this piece of punctuation, its role in English has greatly changed over time.