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Punctuation in Latin

Hello. I do not know if there's punctuation in Latin. I searched and found out there is no punctuation in classic Latin. I would like to know how to indicate a question, if there isn't a sign to do it.

December 8, 2019



Questions in Latin are indicated by the words used in the sentence, not by word order or punctuation.


What do you mean by that?


You use question words. The most important being what, why, when, how, where and who.

Or you use specialist words, which requires detailed explanation and are probably explained thoroughly elsewhere. Most commonly, adding -ne to a word, or using num or nonne. Or, less commonly, leavng all of those out and makng sure that what you are saying can only be a question, otherwise you wouldn't be sayng it.


Thank you. Sorry if I bothered you. This really helped me.


I would like to know how to indicate a question, if there isn't a sign to do it.

As Tembo441 said, questions were indicated by certain words in the sentence. The simplest cases are:

  • -ne appended to the first word of the sentence, to simply signal a question: Videsne navem illam? (Do you see that ship?)
  • Nōnne as the first word of the sentence, to indicate a positive reply is anticipated: Nonne vitium est pigritia? (Laziness is a fault, isn't it?)
  • Num as the first word of the sentence, to indicate a negative reply is anticipated: Num eloquentiam Platonis superare possumus? (We can't surpass Plato's eloquence, can we?)
  • Question words beginning the sentence, such as Cūr . . . ? or Quid . . . ? or Quis . . . ?: Cur dona mihi non das? (Why don't you give me presents?)

There are other ways to signal double questions, indirect questions, etc., but getting used to the above should get you all the way through the Duolingo course.


If by ‘punctuation’ we mean extra-alphabetical symbols meant to structure texts, there were several ways Latin writers used punctuation, viz. interpunction. These may take the shape of two or three points placed vertically, similar to a vertical ellipsis (U+22ee: ‘⋮’), which disappeared by the third c. ʙᴄᴇ; it may be regular interpuncts, which could be be triangular (from 187 ʙᴄᴇ), square (167 ʙᴄᴇ), and by the Principate arrow-heads, commas, ivy-leaves (hederae), circles, tildes and sometimes even more ornate shapes, such as anchors or various flowers. For longer texts, paragraphing was also used, e.g. by having the first line start left of margin.

The usage of symbols such as commas, semicolons, colons, full stops, exclamation and question marks, and even interrobang, are much more modern inventions. But there is a reason for the invention of these. Texts written in Classical Latin, had more of a circular structure than modern, Western European sentences; you dove into the sentence, then gradually found your way out again. It may sound foreign to us, but I would be surprised if not Eastern European language users (e.g. Slavonic or Greek) or maybe Finns, would find this easier to comprehend than us Westerners.

Source: Edmondson, Jonathan p. 127f; Salomies, Olli p. 170. Both of which from eds. Bruun and Edmondson: The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy, Oxford University Press, 2015.


The symbols you mentioned, like the hedera, are mainly epigraphical I believe, i.e. used in inscriptions; it’s a handbook of Roman epigraphy you cited, not writing in Antiquity in general.

Few if none were used in papyrus texts; at least, I do not recognise them, although I am more familiar with Greek than Latin papyrology.


You are of course quite correct in this observation. I haven’t studied Roman letters too much, only to some extent. The Vindolanda soldier letters are the only ones I have read to some extent, and according to the Vindolanda Tablets Online, the interpunct is indeed used (http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/tablets/TVI-4-6.shtml). The tablets date to the beginning of the second century, the century when the interpunct begun to disappear (yielding to scriptua continua, if my memory serves me correct), and they actually go as far as to describe the usage of the interpunct in these letters as ‘perhaps better regarded as punctuation which, in the strict sense, does not otherwise occur in the tablets.’


Thank you for this explanation; I'd been wondering about this for some time. :) A lingot from me! :)


Cheers, much appreciated!


Editions of classical texts simply use modern punctuation: comma’s, stops, question marks and such.


In fact, I think it's fair to say that all those conventions and punctuation marks were developed by Latin scribes and scholars for Latin texts, and were only later adopted by Europe's vernaculars.

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