Episode 150: A Capital Offense

In the 1530s, Henry VIII declared himself to be the ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church of England, and he demanded absolute loyalty from his subjects. Those who crossed him risked the loss of their heads. Meanwhile, the modern punctuation system started to emerge with the introduction of the comma and other punctuation marks. In this episode, we look at the intersection of ‘capital’ offenses, ‘capital’ letters, and the origin of modern punctuation.


7 thoughts on “Episode 150: A Capital Offense

  1. Kevin,

    Great episode, as always. What do you mean when you say that punctuation marks have a “grammatical” function? Do you mean that they serve as graphical markers of sentences/clauses/phrases? Sure, they can make the syntax of sentences on the written page clearer; they can tell you when a sentence comes to an end, or whether a sentence is a question or an exclamation. But calling these graphical conventions “grammatical” seems a bit strong, since they are not needed in oral speech. As for the comma wars, they’re really just battles of conventions between different copy-editing schools. In what way do these battles concern grammar? Maybe this is just a definitional issue.

    • Good question. I am aware that many traditional definitions don’t include punctuation marks within ‘grammar,’ but I was trying express the difference between the way we use marks today versus the past, and “grammatical” was the best term I could think of. In the Middle Ages, punctuation marks merely represented pauses in speech, but today, we have specific rules that govern the use of punctuation marks, and sometimes those rules are related to the grammatical structure of the sentence. For example, we sometimes use a comma to mark a specific grammatical clause within a sentence. That was the idea I was trying to express.

      By the way, even though the traditional definition of “grammar” focuses on elements of the spoken language, many modern definitions have expanded the term to include aspects of the written language as well. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition of “grammar”:

      “That department of the study of a language which deals with its inflectional forms or other means of indicating the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage; usually including also the department which deals with the phonetic system of the language and the principles of its representation in writing.”

  2. Kevin,
    Just a note to say congratulations on 150 numbered episodes! An impressive and outstanding accomplishment. Thank you for all your efforts over the years. I look forward to another 150 (??) episodes :)!
    Best regards,

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I doubt the podcast will ever reach another 150 episodes though. My guess is probably another 50-75 episodes, but we’ll see. There is a LOT to cover in the Modern English period.

  3. Great episode as always! I may be the only person who grins like an idiot while mowing the lawn and hearing you speak about virgules. Fun fact: a 15th century fencing source I have been working with for decades appears to use periods and double virgules as places to indicate a pause in movement during a chain of sword cuts or thrusts. Just thought you’d be interested to know that.
    (Its British Library Harleian MS 3542 ff. 82-87 in case you care).

  4. Pingback: S1 – 040 William Caxton – Tudoriferous

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