Harrison Middleton University



We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


January 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives contains some extremely long and complicated sentences. It comes as no surprise that the Dryden translations of Plutarch suffer from a lack of punctuation since the original Greek did not contain any punctuation either. In fact, scholars today cannot completely agree upon when to use a comma versus parentheses. Sometimes punctuation is a matter of personal taste and sometimes it is clear cut. Michael Palmer, a scholar on ancient Greek texts, discusses the importance of understanding punctuation. He writes,

“For a competent reader of Ancient Greek to fail to question the punctuation in our printed editions of the Ancient Greek texts is an abdication of a significant part of our responsibility. If we don’t struggle with the punctuation, we are simply handing that responsibility off to the editors of those texts. While that is a reasonable thing for students early in the study of the language to do, it is not a reasonable thing for accomplished readers to do. Question the punctuation. Struggle with it. Ask how the text would change if we punctuated it differently. What options are reasonable? Which ones are not? This is a part of what it means to read seriously.”


Thinking about his quest to wrestle with punctuation, I began to wonder about the use and invention of parentheses. Parenthesis (a single bracket) comes from the Greek roots par-, -en and thesis. Literally, it means “to put beside”. Parentheses behave like commas, but are somehow more of a deviation than a parenthetical phrase set aside by commas. Even Strunk and White list this as a difficult rule. Rule number three from the Elements of Style says, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”. And then, they go on to explain that, “This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other”. One assumes that the same would be true for parentheses. One main difference may be that parentheses only work in pairs, whereas commas can stand alone. Strunk and White never directly address when to use commas versus when to use parentheses, though they do explain how to incorporate punctuation within the parenthetical phrase itself (see Chapter Three). (Of course, contemporary social media texts now enable one to use a single parenthesis in place of an emoticon. Emoticons and languages like computer codes offer an entirely new style of communication that requires discussion some other time.)

In this article, Neil Gaiman admits that parenthetical phrases allow a bit of the author to come forward. Shakespeare used asides to give the audience privileged knowledge, whereas someone like C.S. Lewis uses them to inform the reader of a personal opinion. It remains unclear as to how much weight should be placed on the text in parentheses, however. For example, the same article then goes on to claim that the parenthetical phrases carry less meaning than the rest of the text. It says, “In her book Quoting Speech in Early English (2011), Colette Moore notes that parentheses, like other marks of punctuation, originally had both ‘elocutionary and grammatical functions. . . . . [W]e see that whether through vocal or syntactic means, the parentheses are taken as a means to downplay the significance of the material enclosed within.’” This brings back the point to Plutarch’s use of parenthetical phrases. The original Greek form did not allow for parentheses, but I wonder if parenthetic phrases existed in the original, without visible indicators.

The following example (from Plutarch’s “Camillus“) is just one of many that has sparked my interest in the use of punctuation in ancient texts. After the Gauls invaded Rome and burned much of it, Plutarch notes that the vestal virgins fled the city. Yet, in this passage, he divulges a lot more information than the fact that they fled. Instead, he offers cultural and historical insights into the meaning of fire. While interesting and informative, it seems out of place in the midst of the siege of Rome. It seems to me that, besides the first sentence, the rest of this paragraph is actually a parenthetic phrase.

“But the consecrated fire the vestal virgins took, and fled with it, as likewise their other sacred things. Some write that they have nothing in their charge but the ever-living fire which Numa had ordained to be worshipped as the principle of all things; for fire is the most active thing in nature, and all production is either motion, or attended with motion; all the other parts of matter, so long as they are without warmth, lie sluggish and dead, and require the accession of a sort of soul or vitality in the principle of heat; and upon that accession, in whatever way, immediately receive a capacity either of acting or being acted upon. And thus Numa, a man curious in such things, and whose wisdom made it thought that he conversed with the Muses, consecrated fire, and ordained it to be kept ever burning, as an image of that eternal power which orders and actuates all things.”

Little is known about the first use of parentheses. Erasmus was the first to label the marks, which he called lunula because they appeared like half-moons. Since then, they continued in use, though sparingly, until present day. Currently, dashes, commas or parentheses can be used with almost equal function. Now we even use footnotes and endnotes. Clearly there is a need for this tool, but what is the best, most direct, clearest form of communicating information that pertains, but only slightly, to the main text? As a reader, how do we receive parenthetic information? What are your thoughts on punctuation?

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