Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rhetoric of Punctuation

Punctuation marks, those seemingly insignificant jots and tittles in our language, are often overlooked.  In usual discourse, we do not really need a period, or question mark to let us know what is going on in a sentence.  But, before you completely overlook them, take a gander at the following two letters.  Punctuation indeed can make all the difference in the world.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart.  I can be forever happy --will you let me be yours?



Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is .  All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless  and inferior. You have ruined me.  For other men, I yearn.  For you, I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we're apart, I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be?


(HT Roy Williams at Monday Morning Memo via my wife

Now, considering that Old and New Testament manuscripts did not have any punctuation at all, and that these have been added later by editors, are there places in the Bible that could carry different meanings if the punctuation marks are rearranged? 

This also made me think about the rhetorical task of delivery in the ancient world.  When we speak, we communicate punctuation through our tone of voice, pauses, etc.  Check out the following example of a teleprompter gag which also illustrates the importance of punctuation.


  1. Dr. Reich, this made me laugh, and also made think, wow thats really true. I've seen that letter before, and was actually asked to put in my own punctuation where I saw fit..and come to find out, I didn't put the write commas and periods in their correct location. That exercise and also your examples really show that there can be definite questions and hesitation when it comes to reading the Bible from now on. It also shows that the people who interpreted and added in the punctuation in the Bible did so in their interpretation or view of what they were reading. This definitely will raise flags for me from now on when I read passages.

  2. Andrea SifuentesMay 9, 2011 at 1:31 AM

    Wow, that is so true. I have always pondered on whether or not there has ever been mistakes like the example you gave. If there were then this could bring about an entirely new perception to the Bible.