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
- A woman without her man is lost?
- A woman--without her man--is
- A woman. Without her, MAN IS
- A woman? Without her, man is
- A woman! Without her, man is
- A woman. Without her, man is
. . . lost.
- A woman: "Without her, Man is
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:
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
page of the Beowulf materials.