I'm wondering if punctuation is necessary for written languages. I can't quite tell if in spoken languages we use "punctuation". It seems like "we say multiple words without pauses, breaks, or other gaps; and yet somehow, we can translate it to written text by adding things such as: commas, spaces, semicolons, and and periods."

I am wondering about:

  • question marks
  • exclamation marks
  • periods
  • colons
  • semicolons
  • commas
  • spaces
  • quotes
  • single quotes for don't, etc.

It seems Chinese doesn't have spaces, but that they use [mostly] Western punctuation like ? and ! (not sure what they had before). I am not sure about other languages, wondering if any languages don't have punctuation at all, or there are none, if it is even necessary (and what it's goal serves). Maybe German from what I've seen doesn't have spaces in some places, since it seems like they combine letters into long combinations for complex meanings, but I'm not sure.

1 Answer 1


It's not necessary. We know this because punctuation is actually a relatively recent invention: Classical Latin, for example, was often written without punctuation or spacing of any sort.

However, while it's not necessary, it's useful. Quotation marks allow us to avoid the repetition of "then he said…" that you find all over the place in e.g. Biblical Hebrew, representing the pause and change of inflection that a speaker would use out loud. Question marks and exclamation points indicate a speaker's intonation, which isn't otherwise marked. Spaces divide up words so that they can be read more easily. And so on.

Thus, punctuation is probably here to stay. In text messaging (which combines the informality of conversation with the missing intonation of writing) it's become even more important than in standard book English: there's a difference between the messages okay and okay. (and okay :) and okay~ and…) that would be much more difficult to express without punctuation.

  • 3
    Sometimes punctuation can indicate intonation and other real features of language, though rarely well. However, quite commonly punctuation is used to mark things that are not part of real language, like the difference between your and you're.
    – jlawler
    Aug 28, 2018 at 19:03

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