Welcome to the middle of the week, Word Nerds! I started out today on an innocent quest to discover why American-English has named that little dot at the end of a sentence a period, while British- (and Australian-) English prefers the term full stop.
Turns out I should have packed a lunch!
One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was knee-deep in the history of punctuation itself. Talk about a grammarian’s heaven!
There’s far too much for me to share here, but if you’re interested, the BBC article The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation is a great place to start. Our humble little full stop or period had its beginnings way back in the 3rd Century BC, when the Alexandrian librarian Aristophanes decided there must be a clearer way to communicate in writing than runningallofyourwordsandletterstogether. It made reading something of a chore, to say the least!
Aristophanes’ original system punctuated for the length of a pause rather than grammatical function—a logical way to punctuate in a culture where persuasive speaking was more highly regarded than written language. He devised three different dots aligned with the middle, bottom, and top of the line called a comma, colon, and periodos respectively, with the periodos indicating the longest, or full, pause.
Punctuation remained fairly arbitrary right up until the development of the first printing presses, but it’s fairly easy to see how both terms came to be associated with the dot that we now place at the end of a sentence. Period refers back to the original term periodos, used by Aristophanes, and full stop refers to the effect, if you will, of reaching a full-length pause at the end of a sentence, as opposed to a shorter pause, such as might be indicated by a comma.
Having said that, it seems as though the two words did retain distinct meanings even into the early 20th Century: the dot used in abbreviations such as etc. was a period, whereas the dot used at the end of a sentence was a full stop. Exactly when or why American-English and British-English diverged on this point and began applying their preferred term ubiquitously is unknown.
Now, with the advent of the internet, we have yet another name for that little dot; namely, dot! Perhaps we haven’t reached the end of this story yet…