Etymology Linguistics Punctuation

Stop signs

Q: I was watching “Law & Order: UK” the other day when the Crown Prosecutor (or perhaps a barrister) ended a sentence by saying “full stop.” This reminded me that the British use “full stop” where Americans say “period.” I’d be interested in the history of these punctuation terms.

A: The terms “full stop” and “period” date back to Shakespearean times. Although both were once used in Britain for the punctuation mark, the Oxford English Dictionary describes “period” as now chiefly North American.

The OED’s earliest citation for “period” in this sense is from Arte Brachygraphie, a 1597 book about shorthand, by the English calligrapher Peter Bales: “The first is a full pricke or period.” (Here, “pricke” means a dot or spot.)

We haven’t seen the text of the Bales book, but the OED says the word “period” here refers to “the single point used to mark the end of a sentence.”

The dictionary has an even earlier citation that uses “period” for the full pause at the end of a sentence, rather than for the punctuation mark itself.

Here’s the citation, from Penelope’s Web, a 1587 collection of tales by the English writer Robert Greene: “She fell into consideration with her selfe that the longest Sommer hath his Autumne, the largest sentence his Period.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “full stop” to mean the punctuation mark is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600). In urging Salanio to get to the end of a story, Salarino says, “Come, the full stop.”

And here’s an example using both “period” and “full stop,” from Micrographia, a 1665 book by the English polymath Robert Hook about his observations with a microscope: “A point commonly so call’d, that is, the mark of a full stop, or period.”

The use of “period” for the punctuation mark is derived from the Medieval Latin periodus (spelled peri[o]dos in Aelfric’s Grammar, a text in Latin and Old English from the early 11th century).

And with that, we’ll come to a full stop.

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