The Question Mark

Where does the question mark come from? There, I’ve already just used one, just trying to find out! In English, this peculiar hook with a dot underneath it is always used when you ask a question in print. In evolving to its current form, this type of punctuation mark went through an interesting and logical series of changes.

When language was first put into written form, no punctuation marks were used: no periods, no commas, no colons and, as you might suspect, no question marks! There were just rows of marks or letters forming words. The earliest writing style of ancient Persia and Babylon, called cuneiform, simply used wedged-shaped characters to tell the writer’s tale. The number, size and direction of the symbols all had meaning. In early Latin, the word “QUESTIO,” literally “I ask,” came to signify an inquiring or questioning sense. the word “QUESTIO” was just put in line with all the other words. No punctuation, remember.

Being used frequently, some efficiency-conscious scribe eventually shortened it to “QO” alone, the first and last letters of the word. To make it stand out even more, the “Q” was put above the “O.” This made the newly positioned two-letter combination a strong and obvious signal to the reader about precisely where the question ended. It wasn’t long, a few centuries or so, and the “O” shrank to become a clot, like the period that follows this word. The “0” lost much of its circle-with-a-tail look and took on the shape of the rounded hook.

Punctuation is the use of standardized marks to clarify the meaning of written language. The question mark is a prime example. We use it everyday in our reading or writing. That’s the story of the question mark. What do you think about that?


Copyright 2019 Gerald J. Driessen


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