Monday, October 15, 2007

The power of punctuation

Ever since the Lynne Truss book that filled a thousand Christmas stockings, I have veered away from my incipient grammar freakishness (which is so bad that I can identify gerundives in English - which apparently don't exist). In place of eats, shoots and leaves I in any event always preferred a similar cautionary tale about the importance of capital letters (it involved going down to the farm and helping Uncle Jack off his horse...).

But the absence of punctuation marks in classical languages has left us at least one perpetual puzzle. While we know that Julius Caesar's dying words were not 'et tu Brute' as Shakespeare would have us believe, our only source is Suetonius - admittedly not always entirely reliable. And he says that what Caesar said, turning to Brutus before pulling his toga over his face to hide his dying face, was, in Greek, 'and you my child.'
But what we don't know, because there isn't a Latin symbol for an interrogative, is whether this was a despairing question - even you Brutus? - or a grim prediction - they'll get you next my lad. It is entirely unsolveable from the source material we have to hand, and a very pleasing little conundrum. In the absence of a definitive answer, lets go with Kenneth Williams.



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