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Punctuation and the Genealogist

Updated: May 1, 2023

As a good genealogy researcher, you of course always want to dot your i’s and cross your t’s- but there are a lot of other dots and jots and tittles out there in old documents- what are they doing there?

If you look at old documents, the further back you go, the more, ah, adventurous the punctuating gets. Go back to ancient Greece, and there was originally no punctuation and often not even spaces between words. The Romans added dots between words, and the Middle Ages gradually started adding what amounts to periods and commas, and eventually question marks and quotation marks. Most kinds of punctuation did not arise until after the printing press, with printers trying to standardize spelling and usage.

The ancient Greeks did start adding dots to mark pauses, to make it easier to read speeches, and sometimes marked sentences and quotations, or they would sometimes make every sentence a paragraph. Greek theater pushed punctuation forward, as did the Bible, also meant to be read aloud. The printing press accelerated the trend all the more.

When you look at writing from previous centuries, particularly handwriting, you run into endless variation- by century, by country, by region, by group, by individual, by style. Printers tended to standardize things, but in handwriting, you’ll find that you may find anything.

Even today, punctuation varies by language, for example, in German, numbers use periods and commas the opposite of English usage: 1.000.000,02 is a million point zero two, while 1,000 is one point zero zero zero. You might even run into that in family letters. When punctuation doesn’t seem to make sense, ask around to see how that culture used that punctuation at that time- it can vary a lot.

German has also gravitated to a different form of quotation marks than English, sometimes a little different ( ,,blah’’ ) with the opening marks at the bottom, sometimes more distinct, such as Gänsefüßchen (‘geesefeet’) ( » blah « ) (I love that very feet-on-the-ground name, not at all stuffy Latin). Importantly, opening and closing quotation marks are kept clearly distinct either way.

French does the same, but in reverse ( « blàh » ); Spanish speakers helpfully start questions with ¿. Everyone does things a little differently. Well, your great-great-grandparents probably did it a lot differently.

So still, what about that strange punctuation in your old family letters?

As a rule, the less book-learning, the less punctuation, and the less consistently.

Periods may or may not be there, periods and commas may be interchangeable.

An example: in 1620, a printer made this hornbook (a one-page spelling primer) with the Lord’s Prayer, which uses commas and periods like we do, but also uses periods and colons where we would use commas.

Brace yourself when you dive into older writing, particularly handwriting. Punctuation was in flux, and many people did not have much schooling either. Some people only used periods and commas and the occasional question mark; others only used a dot that might be a period or a comma, while a few use essentially no punctuation at all, you just have to intuit where sentences start and end.

My grandfather’s grandfather Robert, an English-speaker with only a few years of schooling, had almost no punctuation. He used all of three periods in the first month of his 1866 diary. For that matter, his spelling was extremely free-form- when you read unschooled letters, you may need to read it aloud to understand what they meant- an Essiebut is ‘an essay, but’, parrarie is ‘prairie’, killed a big g round Heog is ‘killed a big groundhog’, the Reparted Gald Mind is ‘the reported gold mine’, my feet are very soor wherethey wer frosen, and so on.

1866 diary - no punctuation
my grandfather's grandfather's punctuation-free diary

Others go the extra mile- another ancestor Carl Werner loved to throw in dashes after periods, question marks and exclamation marks ( blahblah.__ blah?__ blah!__ blah.___. ) No question where the punctuation was for him!

Early 1900 German handwritten letter with lots of punctuation

There is also some punctuation that has largely dropped out of use.

One is the virgule, or what nowadays we call a slash: /

We still use them in poetry books and websites, but they used to be thrown in to separate phrases, periods and commas. For the longest time, they all marked little more than ‘pause here when reading aloud’.

This example is a 1614 Bible in Low German, the old language of northern Germany

- it is the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes they use periods, sometimes they use virgules.

You’ll also see them using a double-dash ( ⸗ ) for word divisions at the ends of lines, sort of a tilted equals sign, where we’d use a dash. Germans gradually switched to the single-dash, but into the 1900’s, you’ll see handwriting where they use a comma or double comma instead. Or just don’t bother to put any word-break marker at all.

We’re used to hyphens when a word gets split at the end of a line, but Germans, particularly in the 1800’s, did sometimes break up compound nouns- take a look at this dictionary title page from 1748, a Staats⸗ Zeitungs⸗ und Conversations-Lexicon- this one is a fun example, not just with the double-dash (Ritter⸗Orden ‘knightly orders’, instead of just Ritterorden), but they use the original umlaut, an e over the letter, and not just two dots.

You also see the printer switch from German Fraktur to familiar antiqua font for the Latin (or French, Italian, etc.). He even switches from German double-dash for the German part of Staats⸗Lexicon to a single dash for the Latinish Conversations-Lexicon.

(Schlösser, Häven, Berge, Vorgebürge, Pässe und Wälder, die Linien

Teutscher hoher Häuser, die in verschiedenen Ländern übliche so geistliche

als weltliche Ritter⸗Orden, Wapen, Reichs⸗Täge, gelehre Societäten, Gerichte,)

(‘castles, harbors, mountains, hills, passes, forests, the lines

of German high houses common in sundry lands, holy orders

as well as secular chivalric orders, heraldry, Imperial diets, learned societies, courts)

This book on the other hand uses the double-dash even with Latin words (Concordien⸗Buch, Haupt⸗Symbola), but then, sometimes not (Visitations-Artickel).

Printers of the past were pretty loosy-goosy.

Another bit of punctuation you might see is the ‘pilcrow’ or paragraph mark (❡, ⁋), which originally just meant any new train of thought. More common are asterisms (*, †, ‡) that tell you to look for a word or more that should be inserted there, but then again, in the context of birth and death, it is the the cross or ‘death dagger’ (†), marking a date as a death date, or simply that the person had died. Abundant other symbols mark other life cents- linked circles for marriage (∞), various symbols for divorces, separations, common-law marriages, and different clerks at different times in different governments might use their own variants; consult websites like to get a sense of what you might be seeing.


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