Symbols and Punctuation

  1. Are Scrabble tile values in need of an overhaul?

    Invented by out-of-work architect Alfred Butts during the Great Depression, Scrabble is a staple of word lovers’ lives. The popularity of this beloved game took off in the mid-1950s and has been an essential part of the canon of classic board games ever since. To determine Scrabble’s tile values, Alfred Butts carefully analyzed letter frequency in various periodicals, including the front page of the New York …

  2. Could English exist without the letter G?

    Can you imagine a world in which the sounds of G and C were both represented by the letter C? Try to imacine it. Believe it or not, for much of their history, the sounds of C and G were represented by the same symbol. Eventually, however, both sounds received their own differentiated symbols.

  3. Were P and R Once the Same Letter?

    Do you ever stop and look at the shape of our alphabet? Each letter looks natural to us now, but all those lines and circles have unique histories. It’s easy to make assumptions that our letters make sense, that they developed in some orderly logical way, and one reasonable assumption would be that P and R are related to each other based on their form.

  4. Can you see the difference between those symbols?

    Though one of the least-used letters, X has a remarkable way of getting attention. Last year we talked about the varied uses of X: Gen X, Xbox, XOXO, the X chromosome. British dramatist Ben Jonson wanted to remove the 24th letter from the alphabet

  5. When did the letter U enter the alphabet? It will surprise you.

    There was no letter U in the alphabet. Well, that’s not the entire story. There was the sound for the letter we call U, but it didn’t look like U. It looked like V. The Classical Latin alphabet had only 23 letters, not the 26 that we have today. (This is why the W looks like a double V but is pronounced like a double …

  6. English is read from left to right, but are some languages written from right to left or from top to bottom?

    News flash: Twitter now comes in 28 languages – including Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, and Urdu, which are written from right-to-left. Twitter has long supported right-to-left text from users, but it now has instructions and can display hashtags from right-to-left as well. Why are some languages written from right to left and others from left to right?

  7. capital

    Why Do We Capitalize I?

    Why do we capitalize the first-person pronoun, I? The short answer is because we do. But that’s not a very satisfactory answer. Even though it feels natural to English speakers, capitalizing I is unusual. In fact, English is the only language that does. Germanic and Romantic languages typically have some conventions for capitalizing proper nouns, like Deutschland (in German) or Place de la Concorde (in …

  8. Who wrote the alphabet song?

    Whether you learned your ABCs on Sesame Street, from your grandmother, or in kindergarten, you probably learned them. The clever tune is imprinted in the brains of most of us English speakers. When you look up a word in a print dictionary, you may still sing the song to yourself to remember if L is before J or not. We take the song for granted …

  9. Why do lowercase letters look very different than their uppercase counterparts?

    Take a moment and open the last email you wrote. It’s okay. We’ll wait. Now imagine if you had to write it out on paper, not with a ballpoint pen, but with a pen that you had to dip into a bowl of ink every few words. And make sure not to drip any ink on that expensive parchment. Is your wrist hurting yet?

  10.’s Exclusive Interview with Will Shortz: Part II

    Here is the final installment of our interview with Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times’ Crossword Puzzle and NPR’s Puzzlemaster. Find out his favorite crossword word and why English is the best language to make crosswords in.