I was in the mood for A room with a view last night, and I came across the expression "note of interrogation" for "question mark," which I found quite pleasing. It seems "note of exclamation" has also been used for "exclamation mark." As far as I know, these are no longer in vulgar usage. For instance, these terms are not even mentioned on the Wikipedia entries for these marks.

Did the punctuation marks now called period/full stop, comma and quotation marks/inverted commas commonly go by other names that have since fallen out of fashion? (let us say, go by names that are not listed in the first part of their Wikipedia entries)

Note: I would also be interested in antiquated terms for other punctuation marks, but will not make that part of the question proper. I presume there is none for semicolon (at least in English), since that appears to have come to us straight from Greek.

  • 2
    The Cambridge History of the English Language lists many older punctuation-mark names: incisum (comma), joint (colon), joiner (hyphen), sondrer (dieresis), asker (question mark), wonderer (exclamation point), tourner (apostrophe), underpause (comma), middle pause (colon), perfect pause (period), comma-colon (semicolon), notes (square brackets), note of admiration (exclamation point), etc.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2, 2017 at 21:43
  • Sven, that's great (particularly note of admiration). Do you want to turn your comment into an answer?
    – Kimball
    Feb 3, 2017 at 3:37

2 Answers 2


Because the discussion of early punctuation mark nomenclature in Vivian Salmon, "Orthography and Punctuation," in Roger Lass, ed., The Cambridge History of the English Language, volume 3: 1476–1776 (1999) is so interesting, I've decided to supplement my comment above by quoting from it at greater length.

Salmon offers these comments about the nomenclature devised by John Hart, in one of the earliest English-language discussions of punctuation:

By this time [1561], however, John Hart had set out his views in his 1551 manuscript, 'The opening of the unreasonable writing of our Inglish toung', where he remarked that the function of 'distinction or pointing' (1955[1551]: 157) is to teach us 'how to rest and stay, how to understand what is added and is not neadful to the sentence, and what some translater or new writer of a worke, doth ad more then the authour at first wrate, also what sentence is asking and what is wondring'. There are seven marks listed by Hart in his chapter on pointing, including comma (or incisum), colon (a 'joint'), period ('point'), question mark (the asker'), and exclamation mark (the 'wonderer') but not the semicolon; he discusses the function of comma, colon and period in terms which are both rhetorical, marking pause, and syntactic, marking of word groups.

It thus appears that sharp observers from Hart forward have recognized punctuation as partaking of a duality of purpose that combines rhetoric and syntax; it reminds me of discussions of light that treat it as both particle and wave. Salmon continues:

Hart describes the function of round brackets (the 'clozer') as 'to put souch a sentence in a writing as mough be left out, and the rest of the matter remaine a good sentence' (160) while 'notes', or square brackets, are used for marking 'translations, commentaries or expositions'. He then adds to the list of seven punctuation marks (in an unnumbered chapter 13) the apostrophe or 'tourner', with a somewhat laboured illustration of its use in marking omissions (161–2). He ends this chapter with a reminder that 'great' or capital letters should be used at the beginning of every sentence, whether after the 'full point', the 'wonderer' or the 'asker', ... In chapter 10 on 'thaccents' he discusses the hyphen, which he calls the 'joiner', and the dieresis, or, as he calls it, the 'sondrer' (153, 155). ... In his first published treatise, An Orthographie, Hart repeats his comments on punctuation in more succinct form (1569: fo. 45 v.); but now he uses the terms 'interrogatiue' and 'admiratiue' rather than 'asker' and 'wonderer', proposing that these punctuation marks should be used before rather than after, the sentence 'bicause their tunes do differ from our other maner of pronunciation at the beginning of the sentence'.

In a later section on "the printed word" (that is, on punctuation for printing press use), Salmon resumes her discussion of early punctuation terminology:

When printing made individual reading more widely practised, the three marks indicating pauses, comma, colon, and period, were still apparently regarded as having the same function; this belief is clearly indicated by the name given to these pauses in another early grammar (Clement 1587: 25) who named them the vnderpause, the middle pause and the perfect pause. ...

... The next addition to the printers' regular stock of punctuation marks was the semicolon, used with increasing frequency in English texts after about 1580, although its nomenclature remained doubtful for many decades. Jonson (1640) called the actual mark a sub-distinction, apparently meaning a pause shorter than that of a comma. Daines (1640) described it as a comma-colon, Brooksbank (1654) named it a hemi-colon and Lewis (1672) a sub-colon.

Finally, in a discussion of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century punctuation, Salmon has this note:

[John] Jones also gives unusually full directions for the use of 'turned double commas', the punctuation for which he uses the modern term Quotation Mark (1701: 143–4), explaining that " must be used at the beginning of every line, though not apparently at the end of the quotation. ...

In 1661, nearly all the punctuation marks in common use now were known, but there were some differences in form and function. Quotation marks are used by the end of the period to enclose short passages, with 'turned' or 'reversed' commas (Watts 1721: 43) at the beginning and raised commas at the end.

To sum up, Vivian Salmon gives the following alternative or earlier names for modern punctuation marks, as used by various writers on orthography and punctuation between 1561 and 1771 (not all of these names are mentioned in the excerpts I've quoted above):

  • period: point, full point, perfect pause
  • comma: incisum, vnderpause
  • colon: joint, middle pause
  • semicolon: sub-distinction, comma-colon, hemi-colon, sub-colon
  • hyphen: joiner
  • dieresis: sondrer
  • question mark: asker, interrogatiue, note of interrogation
  • exclamation point wonderer, admiratiue, note of admiration
  • apostrophe: tourner
  • quotation marks: double commas, inverted commas, turned commas, turned double commas, reversed commas
  • round brackets: clozer
  • square brackets: notes, crotchets

A few possibilities found in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Interstinctive point: Not a particular mark, but rather an obsolete synonym for punctuation mark. The OED's sole attestation is from 1696.

Interpunction: Again, not a particular piece of punctuation, but a synonym for punctuation itself. Attested from the early 1600s to late 1800s.

Punctum: A full stop/period until the 19th century (still used in medicine and possibly some other specialized fields with other definitions).

Subdistinction: Used for both a comma and semi-colon (and apparently sometimes for both as a class) in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Also, apparently full point was originally used where today we would use full stop; this one is attested all the way to 1995, however, and the use of point for various punctuation marks (exclamation point, most notably) is still current, so I don't know whether it meets your criteria for obsolescence.

So, if you were in the mood for anachronism, you could tell someone

Your interpunction is atrocious! You don't know your puncta from your subdistinctions, and very often you leave out interstinctive points altogether!

  • Cool, but re: punctum, I'm a mathematician and I don't think I've ever heard it used in math. Can you say more about that?
    – Kimball
    Feb 3, 2017 at 1:19
  • @Kimball Ah, probably obsolete there, too, then. The mathematical definition was basically a geometric point. It looks like the biological sciences might be the only place where the term is still current. I will update the answer.
    – 1006a
    Feb 3, 2017 at 2:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.