General Rules for Punctuation


Wherever there is writing, there is punctuation—they are indivisible. What is punctuation other than a group of symbols? According to the Cihai (literally "A Sea of Words," an encyclopedic dictionary of the Chinese language), “punctuation marks are symbols used in writing to denote pauses, intonation, and the nature and function of words; they are an organic part of the written language.”


When was punctuation created? Although no specific information is available, there are oracle bone inscriptions from more than three thousand years ago that have lines indicating pauses. In the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), we first see the term judou. It is composed of two words. The first, ju, indicates a complete thought, a phrase; a full pause is needed after this. Dou, the second part of the word, means that the phrase is not quite complete; a shorter pause is needed after this. Symbols more akin to modern punctuation did not appear until the Shuowen jiezi (Explaining simple graphs and analyzing compound characters), compiled by Xu Shen (ca. 58–147) in the Eastern Han (25–220) period: “、” which is like a modern comma, indicates a pause within a piece of writing; and “v,” like the modern ¶, indicates paragraph divisions. However, these two symbols were not widely used. During the Song dynasty (960–1279), symbols such as the circle “。” and the tick “、” appeared in block printings. “。” was positioned alongside the text to indicate the completion of a sentence; it is equivalent to the period. When “、” is inserted between two characters, it indicates that a short pause is needed; similar to a comma. It was not until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) that it became common to add “∣” (single vertical line) next to a personal name, and “‖” (double vertical lines) next to a place name in fictional works. These symbols can be regarded as the prototype of symbols for a proper name. In 1897, Wang Bingyao (nd) of Dongguan county, Guangdong province, created ten new punctuation marks by consulting foreign works. They inclu+ded “,” to mark a pause; “.” to mark the end of a phrase; “。” to show the end of a complete sentence; “:” indicates a pause, in a still unfinished phrase; “—” connects the previous phrase with the following phrase; and “!” is an exclamation mark. In 1917, intellectuals formulated a set of “new punctuation marks.” After the May Fourth movement (1919), the “Preparatory Commission for the Unification of the National Language,” represented by Hu Shih (or Hu Shi, 1891–1962), Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), Qian Xuantong (1887–1939), and Liu Fu (1891–1934), strove to promote and promulgate the new punctuation marks to the whole nation. These marks are: the period, the semicolon, the colon, the dot, the interval mark, the exclamation point, quotation marks, the dash, the ellipsis, parentheses, and sidelining to mark personal names; and guillemets to mark book titles. After the People’s Republic of China was founded, the government published “General Rules for Punctuation Marks” in September 1951. Fourteen marks were listed: the period (。) , the comma (,), the enumeration comma (、), the semicolon (;), the colon (:), the question mark (?), the exclamation mark (!), the quotation mark (「」『』), parentheses (()), the dash ( – ), the ellipsis (……), the emphasis mark (.), the proper name mark (∣), and the book guillemets (《》).     


Punctuation is mainly used to indicate the nature and function of a phrase or an expression. In addition to indicating words from other people or other authors, and making annotations, punctuation marks are also used to emphasize or omit certain specific words, expressions, phrases, and paragraphs. Moreover, some punctuation marks have dual functions. The question mark and the exclamation mark are examples of this—the former also has the function of interrogation, and the latter indicates an exclamatory statement. The dash, ellipsis, and the interval mark can all be used either to explicate the previous sentence or phrase or to mark a brief pause, like a comma.


Writer and scholar Guo Moruo (1892–1978) once said “Punctuation is similar to a person’s five facial features—one should not treat them as insignificant because they are not words. If punctuation marks are misplaced, the meaning of the sentence will be altered.” Some literary works or writings use punctuation to express subtleties.” Lu Xun’s (1881–1936) The True Story of Ah Q, Kong Yiji, and Hometown are good examples of this trait. Lu Xun skillfully uses punctuation marks to control the way certain ideas are expressed. Without understanding the nuances of punctuation marks, one might fail to understand the story. Therefore, only when one can use punctuation marks correctly and skillfully can one accurately and properly express one’s feelings and thoughts. This will also have the effect of making the text even more distinctive and vivid, so that the reader can understand what you mean and will be moved by your words. Punctuation marks are the key to good writing that will resonate with your readers.

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