The Importance of Punctuation.

From Gian Biagio Conte, Ope Ingenii: Experiences of Textual Criticism (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013):

The mishap that befell Abbot Martin, according to a burlesque French tradition of the XV century, is well known: this devout figure had thought of embellishing the entry to his monastery with a sign saying:

Porta patens esto. Nulli claudatur honesto

Let the door remain wide open. Let it not be closed to any honest man.

But the stonemason who was given the task of engraving this inscription got the punctuation wrong:

Porta patens esto nulli. Claudatur honesto

Let not the door be opened to anybody. Let it be closed to the honest man.

What should have been a warm welcome, inspired by Christian charity, was turned into a curt message of rejection. The end of the story relates that, as a punishment for this, Martin was deprived of his ecclesiastical rank.


It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of punctuation for the textual critic. Editors do not always devote the necessary attention to this aspect of their work; often, indeed, in their effort to choose the authentic reading among those transmitted, and to correct verbal corruptions or crypto-corruptions, they end up by accepting texts which require a more careful distinctio. This kind of intervention, too, can produce quite remarkable results for the restoration of a corrupt text. The rule will always be one, and one alone: try to translate the text you are reading literally; it is only in this way that, as you try to find a precise equivalent for the single words, you discover all the obstacles that a reading of the text as a whole overcomes and simplifies.

Via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. (Note that, whatever the punctuation, the Latin line is a hexameter.)


  1. Catherine the Great once issued a resolution on condemned criminal’s request for pardon which said literally “Kaznit Nelzya Pomilovat” (Execute Not Pardon).

    Lack of punctuation made it unclear whether the empress wanted execution (Execute Not, Pardon) or pardon (Execute, [Do] Not Pardon).

  2. And what happened? Or is the criminal to this day suspended between existence and nonexistence, like Schrödinger’s cat?

  3. According to the monarch’s wishes, condemned was freed not killed.

  4. God save our merciful empress!

  5. January First-of-May says

    A classical example (though deliberate in this case) that went the other way (towards execution) is Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est, the (semi-legendary) death warrant of Edward II of England, which was (supposedly) written ambiguously for plausible deniability.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Commas are important people!

  7. John Cowan says

    Ralph Roister Doister and mispunctuation (at the end of the comment).

  8. In the ancient texts I work on, punctuation, capitalization, etc. are something added to the text by philologists in Alexandria or Vienna long after it was composed. They have zero evidential value as to what was in the mind of the author, because they come from the mind of the editor. Is he working on some other kind of textual criticism?

  9. King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off


  10. Stu Clayton says

    … hour; after, his head was cut off.

  11. I’d put the semicolon after “talked,” myself.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    That’s more natural-like. “After” as a postposition is rather antique, but so is Charles. “After” as a free-floating equivalent of “afterwards” may even be my own invention.

  13. Roberto Batisti says

    @Sean: I would guess that he is talking about the importance of adding punctuation to ancient texts on the part of modern editors, precisely because different punctuations may imply very different readings.

    I do not have Conte’s book at hand, but a good part of this chapter is included in the Google Books preview, and from a quick glance it seems to support this interpretation.

  14. Roberto: grazzie mile! The curious thing is that modern practice varies so much by philological tradition. In Aramaic and cuneiform we do not punctuate at all (although we do separate words and assign values to signs), while in contemporary Greek texts editors are very enthusiastic about punctuation and accents and breathings. And Latin philologists don’t usually mark long vowels even when they matter for sense or metre (although I have read early printed editions where they distinguish porta nom. sg. and portá abl. sg.) and sometimes distinguish <u> from <v> but not <i> from <j> So some philologists are much more aggressive at including reading aids in the text than others.

  15. Conte is the editor of the latest Teubner editions of Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgica; so he is not just theorizing: he actually edited two of the most important poems of Latin literature (btw, Vergil is one of the few major ancient authors that actually survive in several codices from dating to late antiquity).

  16. Roberto Batisti says

    The late great Martin West – who, by the way, was in favor of reviving the apex to mark long vowels in Latin texts – commented on the different practices regarding punctuation and capitalization in Vedic vs. Classical philology in the preface to his Indo-European Poetry and Myth:

    Specialists may look askance at my practice of quoting the Vedic texts with punctuation and capitalized initials for names, and adjusting them as necessary to restore the metre where it has suffered in transmission. I see no merit in the convention of transcribing the verses exactly as transmitted in
    the saṃhitā text, that is, often unmetrically (where it is obvious that an older form has given way to a newer one) and with no punctuation to guide the reader. We do not do this with Greek or Latin texts; why do it with Indian ones? It may be argued that punctuation and capitalization prejudice the interpretation. But if one is going to make use of a text, one must at some point come to an opinion on its articulation and interpretation; usually this will be uncontroversial, and in any case it is only reasonable to share it with the reader, using the means customary with texts in other languages.

  17. The Guardian recently (7 March) advised its readers “a solution of ethanol, hydrogen peroxide and bleach will disinfect surfaces”. It had to issue a hasty correction: while it’s true that each of those individually will disinfect, mixing all three of them will probably explode and/or generate clouds of poisonous gas.

  18. David Marjanović says

    And not just any poisonous gas, but chlorine – in the amounts involved, most likely “it won’t kill you, but you’ll wish it had”…

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