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Beowulf: An Online Exercise in Punctuation

How many did you come up? Here are nine possible ways to punctuate it that produce very different readings of what that line means:

  • A woman without her man is lost.
  • A woman (without her man) is lost.
  • A woman without her man is lost?
  • A woman--without her man--is lost.
  • A woman. Without her, MAN IS LOST!
  • A woman? Without her, man is lost.
  • A woman! Without her, man is lost!
  • A woman. Without her, man is . . . lost.
  • A woman: "Without her, Man is lost."

Note that some of these choices in punctuation and capitalization create completely different meanings. The first sentence implies that women are helpless without men, but the last sentences imply that men are helpless without women! These radically differently readings come from examining only a single sentence. Imagine reading 3,000 lines of Beowulf without any modern punctuation, only an occasional bit of "pointing" as decoration. How many divergent meanings might result, depending upon how and where a modern editor chooses to punctuate the sentences?

Readers looking at printed versions of early medieval texts should eye the punctuation suspiciously. A modern editor must choose one specific form of punctuation and capitalization to help make the text more readable. Her choice might very well be a good one, but it still covers up all the other possibilities that exist in the original manuscript by limiting the options to a single one. If you are doing a close reading of medieval literature, you should keep this fact in mind.

If you are interested in more information about medieval punctuation practices, check out Stephen R. Reimer's website on Manuscript Studies, section IV. vii, Paleography: Punctuation. If you want to go on to the next page of the exercise, click here to continue. If you want to start at the beginning, click here to go to the first page of the Beowulf materials.



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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2018. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated April 24, 2018. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.