Chapter II. – Blunders in Punctuation, pp.16-19.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

IT is a moral lesson on the power of “littles,” to notice how completely the alteration of the smallest punctuating mark may change the sense of a whole passage. 

Recently, in an auctioneer’s list, the misplacing of a little hyphen, introduced, amongst the articles for sale, 

   “2000 camels’ hair-brushes” 

– an item that ought to have been interesting to Mr Darwin. An American paper reported, on one occasion, the capture, in mid-channel, of 

   “a large man-eating shark.” 

Another paper, copying the paragraph, but less careful about the punctuation, reported that 

   “a large man, eating shark, was captured in mid-channel.” 

It is well that Heaven knows where commas are wanting, or the poor soldier’s scrap to his wife, 

   “May Heaven cherish and keep you from yours affectionately John D———,” 

might have led to unwished-for consequences. 

In the report of Convocation (June 20, 1861), a little error in punctuation caused the deliverance of one bishop to appear in the following startling form:- 

   “His contention (said the report) was that there was nothing in the Mosaic narrative; which was at variance with the discoveries of modern science.” 

What he meant of course was, not that there was nothing in the Mosaic narrative, but that in the Mosaic narrative, there was nothing at variance with science. 

As an illustration of the power of a comma to control, and, when shifted, to utterly reverse the meaning of a sentence, the following story is told:- In Ramessa, there dwelt a prior of great liberality, who caused these lines to be written over his door – 

“Be open evermore, O thou my door, 

To none be shut, to honest or to poor.” 

His successor, a priest of the name of Raynhard, was as niggardly as the other had been bountiful. He did not even go to the expense of painting out the lines; he simply altered the position of one point, which made the couplet read thus – 

“Be open evermore, O thou my door, 

To none, be shut to honest or to poor.” 

Being afterwards deprived of his position on account of his extreme niggardliness, it passed into a proverb that “for one point Raynhard lost his priory.” 

A somewhat similar anecdote is told of a barber who had a couplet over his door without any punctuation at all, but which the passer-by read thus – 

“What do you think? 

I’ll shave you for nothing and give you a drink.” 

If any victim went in to avail himself of this apparently magnanimous offer, he found that the barber’s reading of it was – 

“What! do you think 

I’ll shave you for nothing and give you a drink?” 

to which his reply was, of course, a negative. 

Reading in disregard of the punctuation, or with false pauses, or inflections, produces effects similar to the misplacing of points in printing. 

For instance, a precentor, getting the intimation – 

   “A sailor going to sea, his wife desires the prayers of the congregation.” 

gave it forth as if it were 

   “A sailor going to see his wife, desires the prayers of the congregation.” 

Another man, reading the verse beginning, 

   “The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” &c., 

paused after “flee,” making it read as if it were, 

   “The wicked flea, when no man pursueth but the righteous, is bold as a lion.” 

At a Delmonico dinner the toast – 

    “Woman -without her, man is a brute,” 

was given:- 

   “Woman, without her man, is a brute.” 

Another case is that of a New York editor who thus introduced some verses – 

   “The poem published this week was composed by an esteemed friend who has lain in his grave for many years for his own amusement.” 

Such mistakes escape notice even in cases where one would expect the most perfect accuracy. Every one has heard of the Vinegar Bible – an edition so-called from the erratum in the title to the 20th chapter of St Luke, in which 

   “parable of the Vineyard,” 

is printed 

   “Parable of the Vinegar.” 

It was printed in 1717 at the Clarendon press. Copies are now very rare. I remember seeing one amongst the curiosities of the Princeton Theological Library in the State of New Jersey. But one of the most egregious of all pieces of literary blundering is the edition of the Vulgate, by Sixtus V. D’Israeli says in his “Curiosities of Literature,” that his Holiness carefully superintended every sheet as it passed through the press; and to the amazement of the world, the work remained without a rival in this respect – it swarmed with errata! A multitude of scraps were printed to paste over the erroneous passages, in order to give the true text. the book makes a whimsical appearance with these patches, and the heretics exulted in this demonstration of papal infallibility! The copies were called in, and violent attempts made to suppress it; a few still remain for the raptures of the biblical collectors; one of them at a sale fetched sixty guineas – a good price for a book of blunders! The world was highly amused at the bull of the editorial Pope prefixed to the first volume, which excommunicates all printers who in reprinting the work should make any alteration in the text. The late Peter Hastie, of New York, discovered above 1000 errors of spelling, syntax, and punctuation in a so-called immaculate English edition of the Bible, and one-tenth that number of errata on two pages of a popular unabridged American dictionary. Professor Nichol, in one of his lectures, mentions an edition of the Bible in which the glorious prediction,  

   “We shall all be changed,” 

is printed, 

   “We shall all be hanged!” 

A curious calculation made by the printer of Steeven’s edition of Shakspeare, helps one to realize the difficulty that lies in the way of accuracy, especially on the part of the compositor. This printer calculated that every octavo page of that work, text and notes, contains 2680 distinct pieces of metal; which in a sheet amount to 42,880 – the misplacing of any one of which would inevitably cause a blunder. The only books that are believed to be perfect – i.e., entirely free from typographical errors – are an Oxford edition of the Bible, a London and Leipsic Horace, and an American reprint of Dante. 

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