ASK FATHER: What does the comma really say?

From a reader…


When listening to a Collect (or any similar prayer) in Latin, whether OF or EF, I notice that the priest tends to “punctuate” the final phrase as such:

in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.”

But in English, the same is rendered:

“…in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever.”

Is there a significant difference here, or am I overthinking it?


Interesting.  This got me thinking about how I usually say or sing this conclusion.

The placement of the comma.  On which side of “God”.  Hmmm.

First, “one” is not in the Latin, as it is in English.

Literally, the “per omnia saecula saeculorum.  Amen.” is “through all the ages of the ages. Amen.”, in other words “forever”.   This probably has its origin in the Greek New Testament, in phrases like Philippians 4:20 wherein “doxa… glory is given to God as His proper attribute, “eis tous aionas ton aionon, amen… unto the ages of the ages, amen”.  It occurs in Revelation quite a few times in the heavenly liturgy seen by John.   Hence, it seems like a pretty good thing to say in our liturgical worship.

In the Latin Missale Romanum there is usually placed a period or comma (depending on the moment) between Deus and per.   Punctuation in the Missale tends to indicate how the prayer is to be sung.  As far as the English is concerned, it seems to me that there should probably be a comma also after God.

By the way, there is another punctuation issue in the Sanctus.  In the Latin Missale we find it:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabbaoth.

The last part, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabbaoth, goes together.

In the obsolete ICEL we suffered with for so long, and which some people seem to want back:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.

In the current ICEL:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.

Commas matter.   Is there is a difference between:

Let’s eat grandpa.
Let’s eat, grandpa.

Consider the series or “Oxford comma”.  Say I wanted to dedicate my upcoming novel …

… to my parents, Card. Sarah, and Card. Burke.
… to my parents, Card. Sarah and Card. Burke.

Commas matter.

Lawsuits have been won and lost over the absence or the position of a comma.  If memory serves millions of dollars exchanged hands not too long ago over a comma.

Ah, the Oxford comma!  Discussion abounds, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Julia_Augusta says:

    From Lynn Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: a Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

    A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

    “Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

    The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

  2. Traductora says:

    A comma is essentially a breathing or pause mark, and breathing is usually connected with meaning. If you say “let’s eat grandpa,” that’s said with one breath exhalation. If you say “let’s eat, grandpa,” you’ve paused between the two parts. Detailed punctuation is a relatively new phenomenon, but it’s still connected with speech. So sometimes the “rules” can lead to overpunctuating (mostly with commas) to the point that the sentence looses its sentence flow. Personally, I think intelligibility is all and whatever helps with intelligibility is correct.

    However, I’d like to hold up a torch for a couple of now nearly forgotten signs: the colon and the semicolon. They can clarify written speech greatly, particularly in the case of lists or enumerations. Alas, I think they’ve gone the way of cursive, meaning they aren’t taught now and are on their way to disappearing altogether.

  3. yatzer says:

    Always, always, and always use the Oxford comma! I tell that to my students.

  4. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    We should abandon the semicolon; nobody uses it any more.

  5. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    … except in Maine, obviously.

  6. acardnal says:

    Traductora wrote above, ” . . . to the point that the sentence looses its sentence flow. “

    [Sigh] I think you meant to write, “loses” not “looses.”

  7. Patrick-K says:

    I’d argue that “God of power and might” is better than “God of hosts.”

    What is the rationale for using the relatively obscure military meaning of “hosts,” instead of just saying “armies”/”legions”/”forces”/”power and might”/etc? “Power and might” is not literal, but seems better than an obscure definition that isn’t used anywhere else. 99.9% of the time I agree with the new translation, but this seems to be a rare case where the previous “plain simple English” translation actually was plainer and simpler. (Comma issues aside.)

    It also doesn’t help that “host” can also mean the Holy Eucharist.

  8. sibnao says:

    Welcome to my world. I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor, and while I would love to fight the Oxford comma battle, I’m actually out here on the front lines just trying to separate independent clauses of compound sentences—“The cats and dogs were moving around in their kennels at the shelter [comma here] and Henry thought of how much he’d like to change the radio station” — and keep appositive and participial phrases from bleeding into the rest of the sentence. How many times have we seen: “Her mother, a karate instructor [comma supposed to be here] was already in the front row”? Or “Leaving her flowers [my kingdom for a comma] Lila went home”?

    Up with comma literacy, Grandpa. ( And set loose your dictionary, lest some poor proofreader in the Upper Midwest lose her mind!)

  9. Credoh says:

    There’s another comma possibility, and I think Fr Hunwicke wrote about it a good while back but I can’t find the reference: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts. ie Holy, holy, holy [art Thou] Lord God of Hosts. Which seems to reflect the various Bible translations. We see on altars and other places: “sanctus sanctus sanctus” implying they are a grouping.

  10. Reginald Pole says:

    Don’t forget the 2nd comma in the 2nd Amendment.

  11. APX says:

    We should abandon the semicolon; nobody uses it any more.

    My grade 12 English teacher encouraged us to use the semicolon; it makes us look more intelligent, apparently, in a sort of Kurt Vonnegut type of way.

  12. Josephus Corvus says:

    Anybody who uses the the Oxford Comma is all right in my book. I consistently had battles with our Marketing Communication person over that. I lost because her team was the last one to touch the stuff before it went out, but I made her remove them every time!

  13. TonyO says:

    I’m with Creedoh on the grouping. I don’t know if it works differently in Latin compared to English, but in English you cannot stylistically say “holy” twice, and with the third iteration have it be part of the separate phrase “holy lord God of hosts”. Doesn’t work. If there is a comma after the third “holy”, it means that “lord God of hosts” is described / modified by the entire set of three: “holy, holy, holy”. If there is no comma after the third “holy,” it means that only the third holy modifies the “lord God of hosts,” and then you have no referent to be modified by the first two “holy, holy” group. Or the “thing” modified by the “holy, holy” is the entire phrase “holy lord God of hosts”, which is decidedly odd. The three belong together as a group. Just like the Trinity.

  14. TonyO says:

    I’d argue that “God of power and might” is better than “God of hosts.”

    I disagree, Patrick. Yes, it is true that “host” in the sense of “armies” or “legions” is somewhat old-fashioned. True. But it is far from being truly archaic. It belongs to that large group of words that people understand but generally do not use themselves. A person typically uses something like 10,000 words, but recognizes the meaning of maybe twice that. There is no reason give in to a contraction of the language (by refraining from using a perfectly ordinary word) because the word forces people to stretch themselves just a bit. Giving in effectively means dumbing things down. There’s a place for asking people to stretch a bit, and using a conventional translation that is just a bit old-fashioned is one such place.

    I disagree even more that if “hosts” should be replaced, that replacing it with “power and might”. This sort of replacement runs roughshod over the principles of translation, among which is the rule of keeping the sense identical, where possible. In this case, the words “armies” or “legions” are perfectly valid substitutes. They keep the sense of the word “hosts”. What “power and might” lose is that what the Lord God has at his command are persons in their own right. Yes God does have power and might, but he also has hosts of persons. Sometimes God exercises his power and might directly, without intermediaries, but in this world he very often uses angels and humans as his intermediary agents. So, while he truly is a God of power and might, using “power and might” is not translating “Sabbaoth”, it is changing it to another meaning. That’s not proper in converting the Latin Mass to the vernacular.

  15. TomG says:

    TonyO: Splendid response, mate!

  16. BillG says:

    I must agree with Fr. Hunwicke and Credoh in regard to the Sanctus punctuation in English. All three of the adjectives “Holy” are in apposition to the “Lord God of hosts,” and require the comma for both a pause in reading and for sense. In like manner, there should be a comma in English both before and after “Deus” in the conclusions to the Orationes. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all “Deus” (not only the Holy Spirit) and so they are all in apposition to “Deus.” The comma clarifies the sense and suggests the appropriate pause in the reading.

  17. Original Signed says:

    Speaking of “saecula, saeculorum,” I’ve long wondered if you, Father, or any of the other commenters here share my distaste for the typical English rendering of the end of the Gloria Patri.
    I’ve taken to adding another “in”:
    “…as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be in the world without end. Amen.”

    Anyone else do this or like it better?

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