This post is a summary of the article “The Diachronic Usage of Exclamation Marks across the Major Book of Mormon Editions” by Scott L. Howell, Brooke Anderson, LaReina Hingson, Lanna D. McRae, Jesse Vincent, and Brandon Torruella in Volume 53 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Howell and his team provide a handy reference table for the use of exclamation marks in various editions of the Book of Mormon, suggesting that exclamatory changes over time may reflect, in part, a shift in emphasis from the love and character of God (in the 1830 edition) to the need for God’s grace to save us from mortal shortcomings (in 1920).
In this article, Scott L. Howell and a number of other contributors (including Brooke Anderson, whose master’s thesis some of the work is based on, LaReina Hingson, who authored an Interpreter article earlier this year, Lanna McRae, a sociolinguistics specialist, Jesse Vincent, a developer of WordCruncher, and Brandon Torreulla, a linguistics undergraduate to whom they probably owe several good lunches) highlight a useful listing of every exclamation point in the Book of Mormon, whether in the current edition or any of seven earlier editions going back to 1830. These instances aren’t original to the text of the Book of Mormon, either in the original manuscript or in the words of the ancient authors and had to be inserted. Scattered punctuation was added by Oliver Cowdery in the printer’s manuscript, but it was largely John Gilbert’s 1830 additions that stuck—these have since been edited in various ways over time. The article’s authors see the list as a useful resource that could help generate insights for other researchers, but also provide some of their own analysis of the “diachronic usage” (i.e., use across time) of those marks, focusing on potential changes in thematic emphasis.
After providing a brief history of the exclamation mark itself, and noting the mid-sentence use of the mark—one no longer common, but frequently seen in historical Book of Mormon editions—the authors detail their methodology and provide a statistical summary of their findings. Key facts include the following:
- There were 74 exclamation marks that were included in the 1830 edition, 57 of which have been preserved in the current edition.
- Since 1830, 67 exclamation marks have been added, with 55 of those still in the current edition, in many cases to create consistency in patterns of exclamation in connection with certain words (e.g., “look”, and “wo”).
- Most of the exclamation marks that have been removed have been replaced with periods and commas, many of them associated with the imperatives “look” and “behold.”
- The authors identify a number of exclamation marks as diachronic “irregularities”—ones that have either been added and then removed (12), removed and then readded (1), or removed, readded, and then removed a second time (2).
These marks can often be seen as emphasizing particular themes within the Book of Mormon. These include the themes of God’s power (e.g., Ether 14:18; “Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!”) and God’s love (e.g., Alma 24:15; “Oh, how merciful is our God!”). The authors note that by 1920, this emphasis appears to have shifted somewhat, with more marks connected with “wo statements” (e.g., 1 Nephi 1:13; “Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thy abominations!”), emphasizing the consequences of forgetting Christ and his gospel, as well as the implicit need for God’s grace to overcome them. This finding has substantial caveats, as there are a number of factors that could be responsible for changes in punctuation, but it may nevertheless provide a limited window into the thoughts of those who edited the 1920 edition.
Who doesn’t love exclamation marks? They’re the best! And I particularly enjoy them in scripture. Nephi’s vision just wouldn’t be the same without the injunction to “Look!” Also, since this article combines both exclamation marks and lengthy tables, it may just be my official favorite so far this year. It speaks to me in ways even sun-birthed comets can’t replicate.
Punctuation is also an interesting area, as it’s a rare aspect of the Book of Mormon that probably isn’t inspired to some degree. We know punctuation is likely to be a human decision made for human reasons, and so it gives us a view into the humanity of the book, of how mortals had to take this divine communication and grapple it into mortal convention. In a way, it’s a microcosm of what happens in revelation generally. All inspiration has to find expression in human thought, language, and action. That process probably isn’t going to be metaphysically perfect, but that’s okay. God makes do, and so will we.
In the end, I can be grateful for things the little pieces of humanity attached to the restoration, whether it be John Gilbert’s exclamation marks, our obsession with funeral potatoes, or President Monson’s ear wiggles. They give me hope that my own human foibles will be judged similarly acceptable in the final accounting.