Changed perspectives

On modernised punctuation in Middle English texts

In Present-Day English (PDE), punctuation is considered to be primarily grammatical, meaning that it helps the reader to “resolve structural uncertainties in a text, and to signal nuances of semantic significance” (Parkes 2016: 1). Studies (e.g. Baldwin & Coady 1978) have shown that adult readers rely on punctuation to generate appropriate syntactic structures and draw meaningful semantic interpretations from the written text. However, this grammatical function of punctuation is commonly thought to have become central as late as during the 17th century (Schou 2007: 213), prior to which punctuation is believed to have been primarily prosodic, i.e. indicating pauses, length of pauses and/or intonation (Levinson 1985: 66–67). As a result, Middle English (ME) punctuation may, to a modern day reader, appear erratic, inconsistent, or just ‘wrong’ (see Levinson 1985: 118) and using modernised punctuation has become a long-standing practice in editions of historical documents.

However, adding PDE punctuation to historical material may lead the reader to generate a syntactic structure and semantic interpretation that is unlikely to be concluded from the historical material. Previous studies (e.g. Brown 1986) have shown that modernised punctuation may alter our understanding of the original text; however, such studies have been primarily concerned with a small number of punctuation marks and/or texts. The general effects, and the extent of those effects, of modernised punctuation on our syntactic and semantic understanding of ME remain, therefore, largely unknown.

In an attempt to shine a light on the extent and effects of modernised punctuation, this study aims to address three research questions: (1) to what extent does modernised punctuation allow for inferring syntactic constructions that are unlikely to be generated from the original material; (2) how has modernised punctuation influenced our (semantic) understanding of medieval works; and (3) does this study reveal whether the practice of modernised punctuation is warranted and useful for our understanding of medieval linguistic structures and literature, or the opposite?

In order to do so, this project will entail a comparative study of ME manuscripts and their later-published editions. In the study’s first stage, several ME manuscripts will be transcribed and tagged, syntactically and semantically. The study will then turn to the corresponding passages of the later-published editions, which will be syntactically and semantically parsed, and the resulting annotated editions will be compared to the annotated versions of the manuscripts, with a view to discerning whether and to what extent the addition of modernized punctuation has affected the syntactic structure and semantic interpretation of the text.

A pilot study I have carried out indicates firstly, that the addition of modernised punctuation may alter both the syntactic structure and semantic understanding of the historical material; similar conclusions have been drawn in previous research (e.g. Mitchell 1980; Brown 1986; Gerritsen 1990). Secondly, the pilot study suggests that the use of punctuation marks may be significantly more common in ME than previously believed. It seems clear that a study into the use of modernised punctuation, its usefulness, and its possible effects on our current understanding of earlier stages of the English language is both warranted and long overdue.



Baldwin, Scott R. & James M. Coady. 1978. Pshycholinguistic approaches to a theory of punctuation. Journal of Reading Behavior 10(4). 363–375.
doi: (2 January, 2018)

Brown, Emerson Jr. 1986. The Knight’s tale, 2639: Guilt by punctuation. The Chaucer Review 21(2). 133–141.
doi: (4 November, 2017)

Gerritsen, Marinel. 1990. The relationship between punctuation and syntax in Middle Dutch. In Jacek Fisiak (ed.), Historical linguistics and philology (Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs 46), 187–226. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Levinson, Joan Persily. 1985. Punctuation and the orthographic sentence: A linguistic analysis. New York: City University of New York Doctoral dissertation. (17 December, 2017).

Mitchell, Bruce. 1980. The Dangers of Disguise: Old English texts in Modern punctuation. Review of English studies 31(124). 385–413.
doi: (10 January, 2019).

Parkes, Malcolm Beckwitt. 2016. Pause and effect. London: Routledge.

Schou, Karsten. 2007. The syntactic status of English punctuation. English Studies 88(2). 195–216. doi: (28 December, 2017).

Publisert 4. feb. 2019 19:12 - Sist endret 4. feb. 2019 19:12