It's confusing to me the way colons and semicolons are added to the text. I find myself hampered when I'm reading because I have to gloss over the punctuation in order to read what is said. Why is it used to the extent that it's used? Are the translators trying to interpret the scriptures with the use of punctuation? Here are two of thousands of examples.

Genesis 1:2

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (KJV)

And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (ASV)

KJV: These two sentences are grammatically correct with no semicolon (because of the word "and") and with one period instead of two. Is the semicolon saying that the earth and the darkness are two independent clauses that are connected? Does the semicolon and the period after "deep" imply that the spirit of God is separate from the earth and darkness? Aren't these all interpretations? To me, it sort of sounds like this translation is saying that the earth and the darkness existed and then God came along.

ASV: With two colons and one semicolon, I can't understand why there is any punctuation.

Exodus 2:6

"And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept." (KJV)

When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying." (RSV)

This sentence is grammatically correct without a colon or a semicolon -because of the word "and." It looks like the colon and semicolon are a way to connect the woman with the baby but, especially with "wept" vs "crying," I can't tell if the sentence is saying that the baby (Moses) cried because he sees the woman or if the baby was already crying. I don't understand why there needed to be a colon or a semicolon for the point to get across.

  • 2
    Have you noticed this in translations from within the past 50 years? I think it's just KJV-era English and the legacy of that text. – Susan Mar 5 '17 at 23:44
  • That minor edit looks better -thanks! – Gigi Sanchez Mar 6 '17 at 8:26
  • There are non-opinion based answers for this - and I feel this should be re-opened: A.) Translations into English from Languages that exhibit Postpositive Adjectives, or are poetic in nature - often rely on various punctuation techniques to preserve original word order, (when possible); B.) There are very clear evidences of this in Scriptural texts, comparing various translations, and observing original Hebrew/Greek word order. – elika kohen Mar 6 '17 at 20:54
  • I'm not seeing a question on the homepage that isn't asking for opinions. Feel free to close if you wish, or if anyone would like to keep it and has a suggestion on how to edit, I'm happy to edit. – Gigi Sanchez Mar 7 '17 at 7:25
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    I voted to re-open because the approach to punctuation of various translations, as well as the punctuation of the manuscripts themselves, is amenable to research and has in fact been researched. The punctuation policy of the translators is part and parcel of their translation methodology. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 8 '17 at 15:19

You can think of the KJV OT as a helper text for people who are trying to read the MT in the Rabbinic tradition. The KJV is almost a linear translation, it's word choice reflects the Rabbinic understanding of the text, and it even "translates" the punctuation (cantillation marks) of the MT.

Since the KJV approach is to mirror the MT in English, it adds pronouns such as "he" and verbs such as "is" in italic font where these words are understood but not explicit in the MT.1

In punctuation, the KJV follows generally the cantillation marks of the MT.2,3. For example, the MT of Genesis 1:2 is:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם

Over the words for "without form", תהו ובהו, the mark is zakef katon, which indicates the end of a phrase in the MT. The zakef katon is a short pause, which the KJV represents as a comma.

Under the word for "deep" in Hebrew, תהום, the mark is atnah, indicating a stop, like at the end of a verse. The KJV consistently represents atnah marks with semicolons. But since it isn't the end of the verse in the MT, the KJV wouldn't use a period, even if that would make better sense in English, because that would break the one-to-one correspondence of English sentence to MT verse that the KJV tries to preserve.

The correspondence of English punctuation to MT cantillation is even more marked in the text of Exodus 2:6:

וַתִּפְתַּח֙ וַתִּרְאֵ֣הוּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וְהִנֵּה־נַ֖עַר בֹּכֶ֑ה וַתַּחְמֹ֣ל עָלָ֔יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מִיַּלְדֵ֥י הָֽעִבְרִ֖ים זֶֽה

The words "And when she had opened it" are a translation of a single Hebrew word, ותפתח, over which the mark is kadma (sometimes called pashta) followed by a shofar holech under the next word. This creates a brief pause, that the KJV renders as a comma.

The words "the child", הילד, has a zakef katon, rendered as colon, and "behold", והנה נער, has a tarcha mark, another end of phrase mark, rendered as a comma. Then "wept" has an atnah, here rendered as a period. In this case the KJV splits the Hebrew verse into two, as the second half of the MT verse is clearly a different subject.

So, the KJV punctuation is not a reflection of King James era English, it is the manifestation of a particular translation approach that attempts to preserve the MT's grouping of words into Hebrew phrases in the English translation. This doesn't provide a smooth translation but it can certainly help the beginning student of the MT understand how to read the verses.

  1. Chapters, Verses, Punctuation, Spelling, and Italics in the King James Version in By Study and by Faith: Selections from the Religious Educator, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009). See section "Italics".

  2. ibid. See Section "Punctuation", seventh paragraph.

  3. The Masoretes and the Punctuation of Biblical Hebrew, David Robinson and Elisabeth Levy, British & Foreign Bible Society, February, 2002. See pages 21 and 22 for examples.

  • That's interesting, I didn't know this. I understand what you're saying but why wouldn't they use a period or a comma instead of a semicolon, if they're trying to get you to pause? In these cases, a comma wouldn't interpret. In other cases, adding a comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Thank you for your input. – Gigi Sanchez Mar 6 '17 at 8:25
  • @GigiSanchez Thanks for the excellent comment. I updated the answer to try to address it. Let me know if more clarification is needed. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 6 '17 at 8:43
  • "one-to-one correspondence" -this is your terminology to describe an attempt to translate appropriately? I'm not seeing how a pause that's necessary in Greek or Hebrew translates well into English. In English, these marks mean more than just a pause. In that first verse, if they had to have a pause, why didn't they use a comma? The semicolon after "void" interprets the text. In the second verse, there is a natural pause after "lo" and "behold" so why add anything? – Gigi Sanchez Mar 6 '17 at 15:45
  • The pauses in Hebrew do not translate well into English for the most part. The KJV includes them as an aid to understanding the Hebrew text, despite the fact that they look stilted in English. I added more explanations in the answer. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 6 '17 at 18:51
  • Thank you, Abu. Your explanation is helpful. Except the atnah marks are represented with semicolons but they used a period after "deep." I missed something. I'm also not sure I understand where you and Susan part, since she's saying she thinks it's KJV-era English. You're saying that there was a deliberate attempt on KJV to manifest what is true in the MT, through punctuation, even though it's faulty. I get that. – Gigi Sanchez Mar 6 '17 at 19:09

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