An Argument for Punctuation in Projected Song Lyrics

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Adding punctuation to our projected text offers road signs and symbols that help frame the rhythm, flow, and phrasing of the story or poem we are singing. Most of us learned and have followed these non-verbal cues since elementary school.

A comma can tell singers where to pause for emphasis, but also indicates when a statement or question is not yet complete. A period shows singers when a verse, chorus, or phrase has ended. Additional punctuation helps singers emphasize or deemphasize certain words that might elevate or minimize theological implications. Singers might miss some of those spiritual emphases without those markers. Consequently, how would they know if what they are singing is asking a theological question or answering a doctrinal statement?

Since many of us will be singing Advent and Christmas Carols in the coming weeks you’ll see below a couple of examples of how adding or deleting punctuation can change the theological understanding of familiar carols:

So bring Him incense gold and myrrh

Come peasant king to own Him

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come, peasant, king, to own Him;

Without punctuation we are left confused with the peasant king oxymoron. With punctuation we understand that Christ is available to all, including peasants and kings.

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Rest you merry was a Shakespearean idiom that expressed good cheer or peace. Without punctuation it appears that the gentlemen are already merry. But with the appropriate punctuation the plea is actually for God to bring the gentlemen peace so that nothing will dismay them.

The argument that many of our songs are poetry, and consequently shouldn’t be expected to follow the same strict punctuation guidelines as prose is a valid one. But poetry doesn’t usually eliminate punctuation altogether, it instead uses it artistically to highlight the text.

Some worship leaders might be able to direct us vocally and instrumentally when those road signs are missing, but not all possess those abilities. And if we are truly trying to lead our congregations into participative instead of passive worship, then wouldn’t it make sense for leaders not to do for congregants what they already learned to do for themselves at a young age?

It is certainly easier not to add punctuation when we are preparing song slides for our worship services. But is ease what we are called to when we’re trying to encourage our congregants to leave with those texts and tunes in their hearts and on their lips for continuous worship. Punctuation can help them take those formative lyrics home with biblical and theological accuracy.

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2 Responses to “An Argument for Punctuation in Projected Song Lyrics”

  • Michael Hunter Says:

    For me, the more important thing is the line breaks and visual format. Instead of centering everything and breaking at odd places, left justify, with indents for lines that wrap. I realize that punctuation is often strange, but it goes by for most people and is no longer there to refer to. But getting lost in the words makes the singing difficult no matter the punctuation.

    And strange background images. Several years ago, the church I was attending at the time used a picture of an angel that looked like an armored horse at first — every time I saw it. But worse than that is the tendency for light or dark places to obscure the text (as applicable). Get past that and we can discuss confusion caused by punctuation.

  • Dustin Parker Says:

    O Come! O Come!
    Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.

    That one bugs me every advent because the arrangement distorts the reading of the sentence,

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