July 31, 2006


Pause Celebre (Trevor Butterworth, 17 September 2005, Financial Times)

"You're kidding," said Ann Keatings, an applied linguist, as she absorbed the news I had brought from the US, where I have lived for the past 12 years: Americans see the semicolon as punctuation's axis of evil. Or at least many of them do. "But I like semicolons," she protested, "they allow a writer to go further." Trevor McGuinness, a business manager, was equally incredulous. "Hazlitt," he said, smacking the table indignantly, "look at Hazlitt!" Had midnight been closer and the bottle emptier, we might have taken him literally; but the point still floated within the grasp of sober minds: if so great a prose stylist as William Hazlitt had embraced the semicolon, then surely we could too?...
Big deal or not, there is really only one use of the semicolon that is "more or less mandated", says Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of About Town, a monumental account of The New Yorker magazine (whose history is marked by fractious debates over the placement of commas). And that is to separate series elements containing commas (for example, "The cities represented were Albany, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; and Selma, Alabama). The other principal uses, says Yagoda, are discretionary: "That is I might, with total grammatical correctness and without changing my meaning in the slightest, choose any one of the following: 1. 'The book under review is utter hogwash; and that is why it is worth examining.' 2. 'The book under review is utter hogwash, and that is why it is worth examining.' 3. 'The book under review is utter hogwash; that is why it is worth examining.' 4. 'The book under review is utter hogwash. That is why it is worth examining.'" Deciding which of the four to choose is strictly a matter of sound and rhythm, says Yagoda - that is to say, personal style. "Writers who like (consciously or unconsciously) to stop and pause, and/or who are under the influence of Hemingway, choose 4. Those who like balanced rhythms might choose 3. Those aiming for a 'transparent' style might choose 2. And those who are a little bit enamoured with the sound of their own voice might choose 1."...
Style, as F.L. Lucas observed through pages larded with semicolons, "is a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech." And surely there is something brutish in being assaulted by wave after wave of fact through prose that has the unyielding rhythm and cadence of a machine gun. That, in the end, is what rattled everyone in Termon House on New Year's Eve: the storm rolling in from the west was figurative; the hyperpower at the gate was full of passionate intensity, and it did not do nuance.

Posted by Pepys at July 31, 2006 6:11 PM

I suppose a Tony Snow reference would be bad form.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 31, 2006 7:06 PM

I'm quite fond of the semicolon myself.

Posted by: pj at July 31, 2006 9:29 PM

Semicolons' biggest use now for most people is as the seperator in sending out single e-mails to multiple addresses. Admittedly a lowly task, but you have to find work wherever you can get it.

Posted by: John at July 31, 2006 9:54 PM

Who am I to disagree with Ben Yagoda about version 1? Semicolons join independent clauses *not joined by a conjunction. I myself use semicolons as in (3) probably more than I should; it is an affectation I cannot seem to shake (overuse of parenthetical phrases is also a problem).

Posted by: Ted Welter at August 1, 2006 12:38 AM

Ted; I do the same, and wonder if too much exposure to computer programming has broken my use of punctuation:

First, since computers use the character "." for decimal points, computer languages (eg C) often use ";" to mean period. Also, computers don't mind multiple layers of nested parenthesis (especially if you're using LISP (where it's absolutely necessary (to the point where you eventually just stop seeing them))).

Posted by: Mike Earl at August 1, 2006 10:29 AM

It's fun to be able to argue, er, I mean, have an informed debate, about punctuation marks in a world, alas, punctuated by gunfire.

I like the semi-colon best because you don't have to hold down the shift key; I used to like the colon too (it's so neat in appearance, you know, like a vertical umlaut, which parenthetically, i.e., ( ) was the name of our beloved (feel free to accent it on the last syllable, if you like (I know I do) and unfortunately now deceased tabby))), even though it required the extra keying, but since it has allowed itself to be degraded by academics using it in their preposterous, ponderous and pretentious titles, such as, "My Foolish Ideas: a, b, c," I find myself cringing whenever I try to use it, so I've actually been avoiding it.

Impromptus today has some words to say about words as well as some words by a wonderful wordsmith and a great leader. RTWT (Read the whole thing.)

Posted by: erp at August 1, 2006 11:05 AM