Ens, Ems and Hashes

Another Useless Fact by Iris Einstein

Punctuation . . .

“Oh, no!” I hear the groans across the airways. “Not that greatest puzzle of education, punctuation.” Nay, nay, it’s but the greatest gift of written creation.

Yet the first written works didn’t have it. No capitals. No spaces. No vowels. How could they see without the ‘eyes’, or agree without the ‘ayes’, that’s what I want to know. And overall, imagine it, a desperate dearth of punctuation.

What a great improvement when, in the 9th century BCE, there came the first (known) punctuated document—the Mesha Stele, aka the Moabite Stone, even if it does tell of the Moabite subjugation of Israel. But don’t get excited, as an example of punctuation it doesn’t rate much.

(They had no spell checkers back then!)

The technical name for this—not found in the Style Books of today’s publishing houses—is scriptura continua (i.e. continuous writing). My Grandma improved upon this, in as much as she replaced the dot with a space. But in a 3 page letter this was her only punctuation; it left me breathless just reading it.

To facilitate the written words’ reading was the prime purpose of punctuation, i.e. why it was invented: to aid with the reading of prose, poem, or edict.

The Greeks—those virtuosi of drama, be it epic, comedy or tragedy—began it around the 5th century BCE. They were the first to place the space between the words (sorry, Grandma, it wasn’t your own invention). Other symbols, too, they invented; one used to mark the end of phrases—useful for those long and convoluted speeches that liquidly slip, like honey dripping, from Helen’s much lauded lips. So, yes, it can truthfully be said that the Greeks invented ‘proper punctuation’ (punctus: a single dot).

But the Greeks didn’t stop at the single dot. They multiplied it (Greeks, great mathematicians). They were the first to use the colon – : –; they liked it so much they invented a variant that made use of 3 dots. (MS Word’s ‘Insert Symbol’ box could provide only this – ⁞ – using 4.)

As if that wasn’t sufficient to keep the Classical student stuck to his desk, slate clutched in fist, the Greeks also invented a system they called thésis (which, incidentally, my spellchecker wants to make into a thesis!)

Thésis uses a single dot—but placed at varying heights (and I quote): “to mark up speeches at rhetorical divisions.”

The subdistinctio (a dot on baseline) marked off a unit not quite a clause, where today a comma’s preferred.

The media distinctio (a dot at mid-height) marked off a clause: where today we might use a colon.

The distinctio (a high dot) marked off a sentence; where today, if we’re British, we use a Full Stop. But if we’re American we use a Period.

But the Greeks weren’t yet finished inventing. They used:—

ɤ the gamma to mark the beginning of a sentence

ﺧ the diple in margins to mark “quotations”

∼ the koronis (crook-beaked) to mark the end of a work, or the end of a section—of which the closest modern equivalent is the flourish but failing to find it amongst the symbols WP provides us, I am forced to substitute the ’tilde’.

  ~ ~ ~

So where do ens, ems and hashes fit in?

These are more recent marks of punctuation, but ones that seem to be flourishing on the rapidly multiplying internet pages, and often with confusing rules of usage.

En & Em

The ‘en-dash’ and ‘em-dash’ are named respectively for being of the same width as the typesetters’ ‘n’ and ‘m’; thus ‘–’ and ‘—’. While their difference in usage is mainly a matter of space. The ‘en-dash’ likes plenty of leg-room around it – while the ‘em-dash’ interposes without much buffering—almost cramped in its appearance.

The proper usage of the spaced-out ‘en’, and hemmed-in ‘em’, is entirely a matter of taste—though publishing houses tend to expect conformation to their individual Style Books – and it’s always best to keep to one usage within a work (less confusing for the reader).

Generally, I’ve discovered this little quirk: in America it’s the cramped em-dash that’s preferred, while in the UK it’s the spaced-out ‘en-dash’. I wonder if there’s relevance in that, something to do with national character. (I notice, of late, Crimmie’s adopted the ’em’, though in spelling and other matters of punctuation she’s stubbornly British.)

The hash
(hex or number sign—which in the UK is never used to denote a number)

This is possibly the most recent of our punctuation marks, supposedly created by the Teletype Corporation in the early 1900s. However, a theory runs that the hash sign arose in C19th as a replacement for the printers’ ‘pound’ sign—which is like – lb – but with a horizontal line through the verticals [℔]. This soon evolved into ‘ = ’ overlaid on ‘ // ’, resulting in the hash, #.

Since its first appearance it has attracted a litany of names—crosshatch, fence, mesh, flash, grid, pigpen, tictactoe, scratch, gate, hak, oof, rake, crunch, sink, corridor, and even waffle. While some of these are self-explanatory, others leave us scratching our heads. Such as the octothorp.

The name octothorp is accredited to AT&T telephone engineers who devised it in the 1960s as a joke—though I’ve recently come across an explanation which claims, in total erudition, that it’s a symbol for a village: 8 fields around a central space. So is it also claiming to be of Saxon origin?


I trust you’ve found this brief historical survey of punctuation to be of absolutely no use whatsoever—unless, like Crimmie, you use ‘em’ and ‘en’ to wipe the board at Scrabble.

If this article has caught your interest in the origins of punctuation, see Wikipedia’s Punctuation for more.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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4 Responses to Ens, Ems and Hashes

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    I’m an “em” dash user myself, because it is harder to confuse with a hyphen. And what I always called “the number sign” is on what American voicemail systems always call the “pound” key. I found this quite confusing at first, because I assumed the “pound” key would have to have the British pound sterling symbol on it.

    Most contemporary editions of older literary works silently change spelling and punctuation to bring them into conformance with contemporary standards. This is a bit of a pity for a historian, because we then have that much more trouble when we go back and look at old documents, not to mention trying to explain to contemporary audiences those few documents that ARE rendered as originally punctuated.


    • crimsonprose says:

      I know exactly what you mean of the automatic updates, with no warning given. It was a constant annoyance when I was researching Jernegan. I never could be sure, even though this might be a document dating to C10th or earlier, whether the spellings of names were as in the original. This was particularly noticeable In the case of Lobineau’s ‘History’.

      As to £’s, yea, Iris came across that while researching and pointed it out to me. Ironic, since in England, until the advent of computers and telephones, we’d hardly a use of the #-sign. Yet it seems that the multi-named hash evolved from the printer’s in (pound weight) sign. Confusing, yea, that we Brits have lb’s in weight, and £ in money, and call them both Pounds. Maybe I can persuade Iris to do a follow on post for the origin of pound-weight & pound-money, with all the marks and sovereigns et al involved.


      • Brian Bixby says:

        My understanding of the pound sterling is that it was indeed a pound of silver at one time. But I’m willing to be educated. 😉

        American confusing over the pound-shilling-pence system endures. There was a popular book a few decades ago entitled “What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew” by Daniel Pool, whose very first page of explanation was about the currency (though marks were not included).


      • crimsonprose says:

        I shall pass your comments on to Iris. She’s always looking for interesting topics to post. 🙂


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