By the end of the 16th century writers of English were using most of
the [punctuation] marks described by the younger Aldo in 1566; but their purpose was
elocutionary, not syntactical. When George Puttenham, in his treatise
The Arte of English Poesie(1589), and Simon Daines, in
Orthoepia Anglicana (1640), specified a pause of one unit for a
comma, of two units for a semicolon, and of three for a colon, they
were no doubt trying to bring some sort of order into a basically
confused and unsatisfactory situation. The punctuation of Elizabethan
drama, of the devotional prose of John Donne or of Richard Hooker, and
indeed of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) was almost wholly
elocutionary; and it lacked the inflectional element that had been the
making of 12th-century punctuation.
Their history in English since 1600 1
It was Ben Jonson, in his English Grammar, a work composed
about 1617 and published posthumously in 1640, who first recommended
syntactical punctuation in England. An early example is the 1625
edition of Francis Bacon's Essayes; and from the Restoration onward syntactical punctuation was in general use.
treatises on syntactical punctuation were published by Robert Monteith
in 1704 and Joseph Robertson in 1795. Excessive punctuation was common
in the 18th century: at its worst it used commas with every subordinate
clause and separable phrase. Vestiges of this attitude are found in a
handbook published in London as late as 1880.