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How punctuation is used - and not used - in early modern texts.
Lionel: In this programme, I propose to consider the punctuation of documents written between about 1550 and about 1800. During this period, the punctuation of handwritten documents was erratic and unsystematic. Indeed, literary scholars tell us that 18th century authors of novels or plays assumed that punctuation would be put in for them by the compositors and typesetters when the book was printed. And we sometimes find in documents written in the 17th, 18th centuries that a horizontal dash does duty for everything. Commas, colons, semi-colons, and full stops.
As is the case with spelling in the period, you will find that this does not normally cause ambiguity or confusion, because the author’s intentions are generally clear enough. Even so, we do need to be aware of and to get used to some of the characteristic features of early modern punctuation. Our first illustration demonstrates a number of common features in the punctuation of the period. It reads as follows.
The lords spiritual and temporal assembled in parliament, taking notice of your lordship’s absence from your necessary service in attendance in parliament. Without any leave from his majesty in that behalf obtained or any other just excuse for such absence they know of have commanded me to signify to your lordship the pleasure of the house of peers and to require your lordship’s attendance forthwith after receipt hereof.
Now, we notice here a number of common traits in the punctuation of the period. The phrase your lordship’s absence in line two, your lordship and your lordships again, lower down. These phrases are abbreviated and the abbreviation is signalled by a colon rather than a full stop or point. And this was common in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Or again, at the end of line five, there is a horizontal stroke to the edge of the paper. The clark who wrote this document knew that the next word signify was going to be too long to fit in. The horizontal stroke is to fill up the blank space at the end of the line to prevent unauthorised insertions.
Sometimes, one finds a sequence of meaningless hieroglyphs is used for the same purpose. And these can occasionally be confused with letters. We can also observe in this document a very common feature of handwriting and indeed printed books in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. And that is that we find capital letters spread through a sentence not merely the beginning of a sentence. The capital letters are there to highlight the important words in the sentence. Or to give them extra prominence. Five out of the eight words in the first line of the document all have capitals. The lords, spiritual, temporal, assembled, in parliament, here we have capitals for each of these nouns.
Lower down, attendance, excuse, and signify all begin with capitals. Conversely, it was not always the case that a new sentence would begin with a capital letter. Our next illustration dates from about the same time as the first one, 1677. It’s from a Cambridge professor who recommended a former student whose name was Cleggett to the Duke of Newcastle as a chaplain. And it reads, I am heartily glad to hear that your grace dislikes not what you have yet seen in Mr. Cleggett. It was upon some experience that I had of him, both for his learning and virtue, that I presume to recommend him to a person of honour so able as you are to judge of both.
For I confess I have no greater ambition, and it goes on to say, no greater ambition, than to be serviceable upon all occasions to your grace. Now, if we look closely at this letter, we observe that the new sentence in line three, beginning it was upon some experience that I had of him, begins with a lower case or small I. It was upon some experience. And again, lower down, in line six, another new sentence, for I confess I have no greater ambition begins with a lower case F. Another detail that sometimes puzzles beginners is that a hyphen is sometimes two horizontal strokes rather than one.
This example comes from about 1603, wherefore we have thought good to accompany so great a burden with sufficient authority for the execution and discharge of. You’ll see at the end of the second line, beginning of the third line, that the authority is split over the two lines and where we would write a hyphen is something like an equal sign.
That doesn’t cover all the ways in which punctuation is different in earlier periods from what we are accustomed to today. But I would say that punctuation is not normally a serious obstacle to reading or interpreting the manuscript. It can however sometimes be hard to decide what to do with punctuation when transcribing a manuscript. Should one add modern punctuation to clarify the sense, as some editors of manuscripts do, or should one leave the punctuation as one finds it?
On the whole, most scholars and text editors nowadays advise that one should leave the punctuation as one finds it. The golden rule in transcribing documents is always transcribe what you see.

This video will introduce you to the quirks of early modern punctuation. The focus will be on the use of horizontal pen strokes and capital letters. You will also be introduced to early modern abbreviations.

Summary of key points

  • Early modern punctuation is erratic and unsystematic, but the author’s intentions are usually clear.
  • Sometimes phrases (e.g. ‘your lordship’) will be abbreviated with a colon.
  • Horizontal strokes are used to fill up blank spaces in order to prevent unauthorised insertions.
  • Capital letters are used to highlight important words in a sentence but are not always used to signify a new sentence.
  • A hyphen will sometimes be formed of two horizontal strokes (‘=’).

Examples provided by

University of Nottingham Libraries
The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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