punctuation poems pervasive: readers shape meanings of texts!!

exclamation point followed by question mark

Written communication depends on shared understandings of graphical symbols (words and punctuation) and mutual experience of combinations of words being used in different ways (genres). No writer can require a reader to understand a text in the way that the writer meant it. Especially in our increasingly vicious and totalitarian age, writing is a dangerous activity. Historical knowledge of punctuation shows possibilities for misunderstanding and helps to support humane practices of reading.

Exclamation points in modern editions of Beowulf represent particular expert readers’ interpretations. Beowulf didn’t originally include any exclamation points. The exclamation point apparently arose in late-fourteenth-century Italy as an outgrowth of the vigorous ars dictaminis of Boncompagno da Signa and other leading scholars.[1] That’s more than three hundred years after the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written and probably about six hundred years after Beowulf was composed. Punctuation in modern editions of Beowulf, like punctuation in modern editions of almost all ancient and medieval works, is a matter of editorial choice.

Modern editions of Beowulf have vastly different numbers of exclamation points. The total number of exclamation points added to the Old English text has ranged from 1 to about 290, with a median of 13, across seven editions of Beowulf published from 1861 to 2008.[2] The issue isn’t just intensity of exclamation. Two recent, scholarly editions, which added 7 and 13 exclamation points respectively, have no exclamation points in the same textual place.[3] A scholarly edition of Beowulf published in 1894 explicitly addressed the issue of exclamation points. The editor declared:

If the reader’s sense or emotions do not tell him where he ought to feel exclamatory, he must suffer the consequences.[4]

That’s unfair. Men too often are assigned sole responsibility for mutual affairs. Moreover, even expert, highly attentive readers of Beowulf don’t know when the writer sincerely meant to be exclamatory!

Scribes and correctors punctuated texts to clarify their interpretations of them. Writing in 397, Augustine recognized that punctuation could affect the meaning of biblical texts. He advised punctuating an ambiguous scriptural passage such that its meaning is consistent with clearer words of scripture and church authority. He also urged interpreting ambiguous scripture in its scriptural context. Augustine even recognized the now-fashionable concept of textual indeterminacy:

Where, however, the ambiguity cannot be cleared up, either by the rule of faith or by the context, there is nothing to hinder us to punctuate the sentence according to any method we choose of those that suggest themselves. Such is the case in a verse to the Corinthians: “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Receive us; we have wronged no man.” It is doubtful whether we should read, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit {mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus}” in accordance with the passage, “that she may be holy both in body and in spirit,”or, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh {mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis},” so as to make the next sentence, “and perfecting holiness of spirit in the fear of God, receive us {et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite has}.” Such ambiguities of punctuation, therefore, are left to the reader’s discretion.

{ Ubi autem neque praescripto fidei, neque ipsius sermonis textu ambiguitas explicari potest, nihil obest secundum quamlibet earum quae ostenduntur, sententiam distinguere. Veluti est illa ad Corinthios: Has ergo promissiones habentes, carissimi, mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus, perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei. Capite nos, nemini nocuimus. Dubium est quippe utrum: Mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus, secundum illam sententiam: Ut sit sancta et corpore et spiritu, an: Mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis, ut alius sit sensus: Et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite nos. Tales igitur distinctionum ambiguitates in potestate legentis sunt. } [5]

Augustine’s wisdom on interpreting scripture is also sound wisdom for interpreting secular law and other authoritative texts.

To foster imagination and new understanding, literary works and sophisticated literary criticism often encourage readers to ponder possible meanings of a text. Poems use verbal ambiguity to cloak transgressive positions. Punctuation poems encode alternate readings in alternate punctuation. Generic hybrids make new connections between separated aspects of life. Verbal complexity helps to make literature interesting and fun.

Literary works and literary criticism are non-authoritative today. With respect to these works, readers always have a powerful option for readerly engagement and meaning-making. Readers should cultivate an under-appreciated form of punctuation. If you don’t like some text, cross it out in your mind and ignore it!

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[1] Parkes (1992) p. 49. The exclamation point {punctus exclamativus} was also called the admiration point {punctus admirativus}. For a history of punctuation that’s freely available online, Krahn (2014).

[2] Calculated from data in Weiskott (2012) pp. 27-9. The editions and number of exclamation points: Grundtvig (1861), 40; Grein (1867), 290; Sedgefield (1910), 1; Chambers (1914), 9; Klaebr (1922), 56; Mitchell & Robinson (1998), 7; Fulk, Bjor & Niles (2008), 13. The first two figures are estimates from the first 800 and 500 lines of Beowulf, respectively.

[3] Weiskott (2012) p. 29. Weiskott stated:

we do not agree, nor have we ever agreed, about this issue {of exclamation points}, and no one writes about it, as though a compulsion to pepper Beowulf with exclamation points were an embarrassing but unavoidable fact of life as an Anglo-Saxonist.


[4] From A. J. Wyatt’s 1894 edition of Beowulf, introduction p. x-xi, cited in Weiskott (2012) p. 27, n. 13.

[5] Augustine, De doctrina Christiana {On Christian Doctrine} 3.2.5, Latin text from Sant’Agostine website, English translation (adapted insubstantially) from website of James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University.

Parkes described a general principle of punctuation practice in historical European manuscripts:

Medieval scribes and correctors punctuate where confusion is like to arise (if their Latin is sufficient to recognize the fact) and do not always punctuate where confusion is not likely to arise, even when they are concerned with the sententia literae. Because scribes and correctors were also readers they were concerned primarily with interpretation, especially with elements which might be subject to confusion. Elements which may have a similar syntactic function or convey similar meaning, and which are punctuated in one context, need not be punctuated in another when the context ensures that confusion is not likely to arise. This factor helps to explain why some modern scholars have regarded medieval punctuation as “irregular.”

Parkes (1978) pp. 138-9. Medieval scribes and correctors primarily worked on authoritative texts. The distinctive between literary texts and authoritative texts had little meaning in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were highly authoritative texts in the ancient world.

[image] Exclamation point followed by question mark. Adapted from image on Wikimedia Commons, thanks to emojione.


Krahn, Albert Edward. 2014. A New Paradigm for Punctuation. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Parkes, M. B. 1978. “Punctuation, or pause and effect.” Pp. 127-142 in James J. Murphy, ed. Medieval Eloquence: studies in the theory and practice of medieval rhetoric. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Parkes, M. B. 1992. Pause and Effect: an introduction to the history of punctuation in the West. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Weiskott, Eric. 2012. “Making Beowulf Scream: Exclamation and the Punctuation of Old English Poetry.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 111 (1): 25-41.

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