Punctuation Marks:
Their history in English since 1600 1

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.

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. Influential 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.