I was rather shocked by the extremely sparse use of commas by Tolkien, but in most cases, it still falls "within reason". However, there is one place (so far) in The Two Towers which just seems downright wrong:

‘Not very wise,’ said Faramir. ‘But just: yes perhaps, as just as our little wisdom allows. Unloose him Frodo!’ Faramir took a small nail-knife from his belt and handed it to Frodo. Gollum misunderstanding the gesture, squealed and fell down.

Approximately page 300. It's hard to say more exactly due to the way I'm reading this book. It's quite possible that it's an error in my particular copy and not in Tolkien's original text.

But should it not definitely be written with a comma as follows, completely regardless of how quickly or in what manner the person pronounces it?

Unloose him, Frodo!

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    I didn't spend a lot of time looking at this, but whether or not there's a comma here depends on the version. (edition with comma). I'm not sure what the original is like.
    – Laurel
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 18:30
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    The Revised 2nd Edition is commaless here. // To tweak something jsw29 said very recently, 'In answering this, as some other questions of punctuation, there is likely to be a split between those who give the highest priority to faithfully getting across the actual cadences of what is said, and those who are more concerned with observing what they believe to be punctuation rules set in stone.' Here, the omission of the usual comma before the vocative leads to no confusion and a more peremptory style (which the exclamation mark reinforces). It's rarely wise to argue with Tolkien. Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 18:52
  • I agree with what Edwin said about the peremptory style. It sounds more urgent without the comma. But it could be that the author was more focused on other aspects of his writing than getting all the punctuation to match a style manual -- which people who write nonfiction have to worry more about. Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 19:33
  • My copies of LOTR have A LOT of instances of punctuation I questioned the last time I read it -- both missing and misplaced marks, as I remember it. I have decided that Tolkien the Oxford linguist was not a copy editor.
    – user8356
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 19:58
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    Commas are put in by an author, not by a rule. Hence there is no "But should it not definitely be". Should requires a rule and it's not for you to decide what rule an author should have followed. Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 21:24

1 Answer 1


Do not proofread literature for punctuation “errors”

One often finds in literature different choices of punctuation, spacing, spelling, vocabulary, or grammar than some scolding junior-high-school English teacher or mindless computer program would approve of. Whenever that happens, remember that it isn’t a reader’s place to second-guess the giants of English letters; rather, it is to understand those choices.

Quite simply, there is no comma here because Tolkien did not want there to be. As John Lawler has written:

Commas are put in by an author, not by a rule. Hence there is no "But should it not definitely be". Should requires a rule and it's not for you to decide what rule an author should have followed.

Printer errors aside, Tolkien’s choices of commas or semicolons or hyphens or dashes are by definition “correct” — because these are how he chose to write these. It is not our place to “correct” the author’s choices in any of this. Whenever you see something from an author of renown that isn't what you're expecting, then if this bothers you, your job is to figure out why that choice was made.

Usually Tolkien included the comma before a vocative, but not always. Here are some where he did so:

  • ‘Now!’ said Gimli. ‘Stop him, Legolas!’
  • ‘Take the rope off, Sam!’ said Frodo.
  • ‘Wake up, Master!’ he said. ‘Time for another start.’

But here is one where Tolkien made the same choice he made in the question’s citation, again deliberately omitting the comma:

At this point Gandalf fell behind, and Thorin with him. They turned a sharp corner. ‘About turn!’ he shouted. ‘Draw your sword Thorin!’

That one happens to be from The Hobbit.

Although it is possible to find editions of these works where an intrusive copyeditor has thoughtlessly meddled with the author’s intent in both these cases, they were unauthorized changes. The originals and the most recent authorized editions are all without commas in both instances.

Douglas Anderson and Wayne Hammond respectively write in the book’s front-matter sections named “Note on the Text” and “Note on the 50ᵗʰ Anniversary Edition” all about the long litany of printer’s errors and hapless miscorrections that have plagued these works’ publication history. Printer errors bothered Tolkien a great deal, and they were not all corrected within his lifetime. Indeed, Hammond and Scull observe in their Reader’s Companion, and in their weblog:

Tolkien’s publisher Rayner Unwin once suggested, not entirely with tongue in cheek, that it could take centuries to achieve a printing of The Lord of the Rings with ‘typographical perfection’.

In their “Note on the 50ᵗʰ Anniversary Edition”, Hammond and Scull notably write:

Many of the emendations in the present text are to marks of punctuation, either to correct recent typographical errors or to repair surviving alterations introduced in the second printing... In the latter respect and in every case, Tolkien’s original punctuation is always more felicitous – subtle points, when one is comparing commas and semi-colons, but no less a part of the author’s intended expression.

The recent editions are the cleanest, but there remain many pirate versions out there, both in print and on the web, that are replete with egregious miscarriages of justice in conveying auctorial intent.

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    ‘Draw your sword Anduril!’ Commented Jul 4, 2022 at 14:52
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    As Tolkien knew better than most, English punctuation is a work in progress, and not steady progress at that. Commented Jul 4, 2022 at 15:51
  • I'm more puzzled by the instruction to "Unloose him". Doesn't that have the same sense as "Bind him"? Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 20:46
  • @Duckspindle The OED says, "un-, prefix², 1.e. a redundant or intensifying prefix to a verb already signifying some action or process of reversal, removal" and gives examples "unbare, unloose, unpeel, unrip, unthaw etc." Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 9:28
  • Thanks, @GarethRees. It's a usage I've never come across, and one that seems pretty stupid on the face of it. Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 15:27

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