Getting a Grip on Punctuation


For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled, Matthew 5:18.



In the last week, (a COVID quarantine Week for me and my home) I have received three phone calls from three different people wanting to discuss punctuation in their King James Bibles. I suspect that the punctuation of our bible is one of the least understood aspects of King James Bible research.

Evangelist Timothy McVey drew my attention to Psalms 56:8; Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book? There are two colons in that sentence. He then showed me the University of New England’s online rules for colons. “Colons have a number of functions in a sentence. If you use colons in your writing, use them sparingly, and never use a colon more than once in any sentence.” Obviously, the King James translators, and even more so, its editors from the 18th century did not agree.

What can we learn from the two colons in Psalm 56:8? We learn that they are not parentheses. The middle clause is not a thought within a thought such as would require parentheses. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles, Romans 1:13. In a thought within a thought, which is the rule for parentheses, the thought on either side of the parentheses will make perfect sense when removing the content of the parentheses, as in the sentence, Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles.

We removed the parenthetical thought and the sentence still made sense. The parenthetical thought however needed the rest of sentence to make sense. We wouldn’t say, "but was let hitherto" as a sentence in its own right. Therefore in Romans 1:13, we have a thought that would make a sentence in its own right and a thought within a thought separated by a set of parentheses.

Psalm 56:8 offers a different scenario. The original printing from 1611 separated the first two clauses with a comma. Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book? The rules of orthography were not established in 1611. The rules of commas and colons were not what they eventually came to be. For one thing, there were no semicolons in the 1611 printing. The two great editors of the 1700s, Parris and Blayney inserted semicolons and question marks into the text and reworked the punctuation system of the 1611 bible.

What then is Psalm 56:8 saying? It has three clauses that could each stand alone as sentences. The first declaratory clause acknowledges that God knows David’s wanderings. The second clause is a plea. The third clause reasons that God has put something in a book. What was put in the book, the tears or the wanderings? The use of a colon in between the second and third clauses makes it clear that the third clause is not modifying or further explaining the second clause. It is not David’s tears in a book, those are in a bottle. It is his wanderings that are in a book. We can read them in 1st and 2nd Samuel.

Words are the traffic that keep the information flowing. Punctuation markers are the traffic cops, and signs that keep order to that traffic. Thanks to the updated punctuation from 1762 and 1769, our King James Bible became decidedly more readable for the 21st century reader.


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