In chapter I.5 [page 124 line 3] of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, the "Stop. Please stop. Do please stop. O do please stop" motif is associated with four punctuation marks.

These paper wounds, four in type, were gradually and correctly understood to mean stop, please stop, do please stop, and O do please stop respectively,

These clearly are the punctuation symbols from among {comma, semicolon, colon, period}, and certainly comma is the first and period is the last, but how are semicolon and colon ordered?

Given that the text is liberally littered with colons and semicolons, the answer is important to the reading.

  • I am open to moving this to English Grammar, but am thinking about future searches on the topic.
    – fundagain
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 20:04

1 Answer 1


The clue to this question is in the text itself. By using the word "respectively", Joyce is telling the reader to take the marks in the order he has listed them. For example the Collins Dictionary definition:

Respectively means in the same order as the items that you have just mentioned.

Since each description of the mark extends in length and extremity of instruction (i.e. "o do please stop" is much more desperate than "stop"), they can be associated with the extending length of each pause in punctuation. That is: the comma, the semi-colon, the colon and the full stop.

This rule governing the meaning of these four grammatical marks was set down in a book known as The King's English by H. W. and F. G. Fowler. It is interesting to note that Joyce appears to have referred to these scholars when constructing Chapter 16 of Ulysses. He repeatedly re-uses phrases and obscure words from that book in his chapter often, it appears, in mockery of its formal strictures. For example, he uses the construction "funny, very" which The King's English decries as childish, and repeatedly makes incorrect use of the word "individual" to refer to a person, which the King's English states is the mark of writers "without the literary sense".

It is worth noting that the punctuation marks in question are also used as diacritic marks i.e. dots and dashes above letters to influence their pronunciation. Such marks are used extensively in the passage which follows the list of "paper wounds".

that they ad bîn "provoked" ay ^ fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth é's Brèak — fast — table; ; acùtely profèššionally piquèd, to = introdùce a notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù ' ' fàç'e'] by pùnct! ingh oles

Of course this passage has been extensively "wounded", as Joyce describes it, by punctuation and diacritical marks. As has the intervening passage:

the circumflexuous wall of a singleminded men's asylum, accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina

The beginning of which can be read phonetically as "bits of broken English". The image conjured by the literal reconstruction, a wall topped with "bits of broken glass and split china" looks rather like a sentence full of diacritical marks, as does the jagged rendering that Joyce has given in.

Furthermore, there are a number of wordplays in this sentence as is typical for Finnegan's Wake, in this case, to do with punctuation. The wall is "circumflexuous" which sounds like "circumfluous", i.e. to surround something. But the spelling is redolent of "circumflex" which is the diacritic mark ^. It is "accentuated" by the bits of crockery, which means "make more noticeable or prominent", but diacritical marks are sometimes known as "accents".

Finnegan's Wake makes many allusions to languages other than English, in which such marks are common. Indeed in referring to the letter as a " Tiberiast duplex", Joyce is invoking Hebrew. The canonical pronunciation of various Hebrew holy texts, often using diacritics, was established in the city of Tiberias between the 8th and 10th centuries.


  • Gibson, Andrew. "Joyce through the Fowlers: ‘Eumaeus’, ‘The King's English and Modern English Usage.’" European Joyce Studies, vol. 22, 2013, pp. 225–244.

  • Mecsnóber, Tekla. "A Notion of Joyce’s Time: Interpreting the Diacritics of Finnegans Wake" Genetic Joyce Studies, issue 14, 2014

  • Nice answer. Just to note that the punctuation of your referenced passage ""that they ad bîn "provoked" ay ^ fork...." is uniquely unusual for FW, and is probably the only passage with such "savage" punctuation marks, and hence demands a separate interpretation
    – fundagain
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 14:12
  • 1
    @fundagain Absolutely. However, the referenced material makes note of the fact that punctuation marks double as diacritical marks, and that the passage full of diacritical marks follows directly on from one about punctuation. It does seem unlikely to be a coincidence, especially given the care and detail taken over every sentence in Finnegan's Wake.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 14:14
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    And your quoted passage certainly pertains to wounding the text, in this case extremely.
    – fundagain
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 14:23
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    @fundagain also wounded is "bi tso fb rok engl a ssan" - which phonetically can be read as "bits of broken English"
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 14:27
  • 1
    @fundagain I've tried to put all of this discussion in the answer, which may now have gone a bit beyond the original scope of your question :)
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 15:42

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