SEMICOLON QUESTION.

An acquaintance asked me whether a form of semicolon deployment that occurs throughout an academic work from the UK, using semicolons where an American text would use em-dashes, is a UK publishing standard or just bad punctuation. Here’s a sample sentence (rewritten to remove identifiers):

His achievement in the book is to make the issue relevant; to bring the debate through a variety of discourses and transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance.

I responded that, as someone used to US standards, I didn’t like it, but I had no idea whether it was OK in the UK. Then it occurred to me that I probably have readers who know, so I thought I’d ask: if you’re used to reading British academic prose, does that semicolon work for you?

Comments

  1. grackle says:

    It reads well to me; I don’t get lost; I don’t have any trouble understanding the passage.

  2. I don’t think the question is whether it reads well and is clear, but whether it is common usage in the UK. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about UK publishing practices to say. In my experience, semicolons are not used that way.

  3. Paul Wilkins says:

    You can use a semicolon to help bring order to a long list, and, in the situation that you are mentioning, to separate closely related independent clauses.
    http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/marks/semicolon.htm
    Or why don’t we refer to the eternal favourite, The Elements of Style.
    This is Section II. Elementary Rules of Usage
    http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk.html
    Part 5 of the above says:
    [quote]
    If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.
    Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.
    It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
    [/quote]

  4. Jonathan says:

    I don’t see two independent clauses. The second lacks a verb. It does have an infinitive, but that doesn’t count. I’m no grammar expert, but I think the semicolon is in appropriate here.

  5. rootlesscosmo says:

    I’ve read a fair amount of British academic prose, mostly history, and this strikes me as slightly odd, because the two clauses don’t seem to me to belong in a single sentence at all, whether separated by a semicolon or an em-dash. But I read an awful lot of Shaw’s prefaces when I was young and impressionable, and he had a very idiosyncratic way with colons, so I learned to view punctuation more as a stylistic quirk than a rule-governed practice.

  6. I’m from the UK and don’t like the sentence as punctuated. Depending on what I thought the author actually meant, I would punctuate it as:
    His achievement in the book is to make the issue relevant, to bring the debate through a variety of discourses, and to transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance.
    OR
    His achievement in the book is to make the issue relevant: to bring the debate through a variety of discourses and transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance.

  7. Noetica says:

    I don’t like that punctuation, and I think it is not in accord with either British or American norms. My analysis is close to Bingley’s, but I present things more explicitly. First some labelling:

    His achievement in the book is [A: to make the issue relevant]; [B: to bring the debate through a variety of discourses] and [C: transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance].

    It is unclear how A, B, and C are related. Surely they are all elements of his achievement, but are they of equal status, or are B and C components of A? In either case, the semicolon is unusual and of uncertain intent. If elements A, B, and C are equal, then I would use this punctuation (supplying to in element C):

    His achievement in the book is to make the issue relevant, to bring the debate through a variety of discourses, and to transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance.

    If B and C are components of A, I would use a colon to show that an expansion or an explication is to follow:

    His achievement in the book is to make the issue relevant: to bring the debate through a variety of discourses, and to transform the texts available to him into a poem whose scope encompasses every aspect of governance.

    I can’t see any truly distinct third way of construing the sentence, nor any way to make definite sense of the sentence with its original punctuation. In fact, I would want the whole thing reworded, after minutely interrogating the author.

  8. David P says:

    I’m from the UK and that punctuation doesn’t seem right to me. A colon would be OK, but not a semi-colon. Something I’ve had comments on from US editors is putting a space before and after a dash, like this:
    “the play’s plot – or rather lack of it – was noticeable”.
    (NB: those hyphens should be dashes). US writers and editors seem to cram the word on either side and the dash all together with no spaces.

  9. I’m British and it looks fine to me.

  10. A.J. P. Crown says:

    I’m British and it doesn’t look fine to me. At all. Oh dear, no.
    I’m sure Noetica is right, but I’m blind when it comes to punctuation, so that’s not really a compliment. I’m all for em dashes. Maybe there are special academic rules for them in Britain, though.

  11. A.J. P. Crown says:

    David P, I think that’s a horrid way to describe the US dashes. Look at the ones in the New Yorker: they are very long and flowing and touch the letters at both ends. It’s more stylised, and I like it quite a lot. And the British ones are much shorter and leave a space on either end. So what’s the problem? Use one in England and the other in the US. I like both. Actually, I prefer the American one, so there.

  12. I read a lot of academic prose in English, including large proportions of US English, British English, and English written by non-native speakers. I can’t remember ever seeing a semicolon used in this way, and I don’t like it. What I write is British English, and I use a lot of semicolons (more than the average academic author), but never like that. I could just about accept a colon in the original sentence you quoted.

  13. Noetica says:

    Coruña, a tutorial on dashes and hyphens may be in order, for some of our younger colleagues:
    This is a hyphen: -
    This is an en dash: –
    This is an em dash: —
    A hyphen is not a dash; but before the glorious Revolution, when typewriters still roamed the earth in unruly bands, a hyphen might indeed be used to stand in for a dash. What’s more, generations of MLAards have used two hyphens to stand in for a true dash. Many still do.
    There are two broad functional roles for dashes. Most discussions of dashes fail to make this clear early, or at all. The result is usually confusion for all concerned. The two roles:
    1. Punctuation at the level of the sentence
    A dash may be used as punctuation between elements of a sentence, along with commas, semicolons, and the others. In this role, three implementations of the dash are common:

    A. Unspaced em dashes
    B. Spaced em dashes
    C. Spaced en dashes

    In fact the distinction between spaced and unspaced em dashes in printed material is vague, since thin spaces, hair spaces, and other fixed spaces smaller than a usual “space of the line” are typical.
    Many British publishers – including Cambridge University Press, Routledge, and Penguin – insist on the spaced en dash. So does Robert Bringhurst, doyen of sensitive and sane typographers.
    British style guides like New Hart’s Rules typically acknowledge that either en dashes or em dashes are used as sentence punctuation; American style guides like Chicago are typically oblivious to en dashes in this role. One compelling reason to avoid the unspaced em dash, though, is this: it is the only mark that fixes the distance between words in a sentence, so that they cannot flexibly move apart with all the others when the standard full justification is applied.
    2. Punctuation at the level of words and phrases
    Many authorities, British and American, allow that an en dash can be used to replace a hyphen in forming certain compounds or phrases, perhaps flanked by spaces where spaces or hyphens are already present in one or more of the joined elements: Albanian–Greek trade talks; New Zealand – Australian rivalry; South-East Asian – Japanese tensions. Details vary, but this sort of thing is common. So is the en dash in marking a range: a 10–7 majority; pp. 23–39. Chicago minimises such uses of the en dash.
    Those are the basics. More could be said.

  14. Another British vote for bingley and noetica here.

  15. occasional visitor says:

    British and find this semicolon odd. If forced to use that sentence a comma would be my choice.

  16. OK, looks like it’s a peculiarity of the author’s style rather than UK usage. Thanks, all!

  17. A.J. P. Crown says:

    Thank you, Noetica. Don’t imagine that I’m young; I’m very, very middle aged.

  18. A.J. P. Crown says:

    I’ve filed your tutorial with other useful Hat things.

  19. John Emerson says:

    My punctuation standard is, if Laurence Sterne did it it’s OK. I’m sure Sterne did this somewhere.

  20. jamessal says:

    Reviewing that over-successful Lynne Truss book for the New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote: “An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces.” I’ve found the Brits to be less costive in that regard myself; and though I do like their attitude, I would never use a semi-colon as the writer above did, unless the sentence were very complicated.
    Sorry to have weighed in after the issue was decided. I just like that quote.

  21. jamessal says:

    Ah, John Emerson, while you’re here, I have to thank you for turning me onto Kenneth Rexroth yesterday; I read his essays on Coleridge (and Zen!) and Beckett, and the poems in Hayden Carruth’s anthology. What a writer!

  22. jamessal says:
  23. Paul Wilkins says:

    I agree with @Noetica, a colon would be the best punctuation to use.
    It seems that the purpose of the semicolon is to cause the reader to slow down, giving the intent that what follows is a subset of the prior. Unfortunately the semicolon doesn’t work quite in that manner.
    A colon is the best punctuation to use, to indicate that what follows is an expansion.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the tutorial, Noetica. I am certainly not among the young, but I have never had instruction on all the finer points of punctuation.
    And the semi-colon in the initial sentence seems wrong to me in the context. I also agree that the sentence is ambiguous about how the second part relates to the first. Poor thinking and writing, not just poor punctuation.

  25. dearieme says:

    British, and keen to sneer at that ugly and unusual abuse of the semi-colon.
    P.S. why don’t Americans use more hyphens? They would improve the writing of those who like to pile up nouns to do the job of adjectives.

  26. A.J. P. Crown says:

    Do noun piles look better with hyphens?

  27. A.J. P. Crump says:

    Jamessal, I was right, it’s Louis Menand who hates (on?) the English.

  28. jamessal says:

    nouns to do the job of adjectives.
    Looks like you missed their last meeting: the nouns and adjectives, they joined unions — it’s hopeless.
    Jamessal, I was right, it’s Louis Menand who hates (on?) the English.
    I’m drawing a blank. But “hate on” seems right.

  29. John Emerson says:

    Jamessal: I wish I could edit a “Best of Rexroth.” About 400 pages of prose and poetry without a bad page.
    Some say that some of his his Chinese-Japanese translations are inaccurate or mediated by French translations, but I don’t care. They’re great, and if he has to pretend to be translating to write them, no problem.

  30. That’s exactly how I feel about Pound’s Chinese translations (mediated by a Japanese trot).

  31. Noetica says:

    Krʊⁿ and Marie-Lucie:
    I did not truly imagine that any participant here was young to any excessive degree, given the uniform depth and wisdom of contributions. But I was thinking of our great drought-breaking prime minister Gough Whitlam, who in retirement has occasionally quoted Cicero at length and then translated “for the benefit of the younger people present”.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Ah, Noetica, I guess not enough people in the upper reaches of the earth are familiar with Gough Whitlam, let alone his pronouncements. I dimly recollect the name. Is that [Goff] Whitlam?

  33. Breffni says:

    I read a lot of British academic prose, though I’m not British, and I like that semicolon. For a start, a dash or a colon would alter the logical relation between the clauses, implying that the to-clause was a specification or expansion of the first, whereas the author wants the propositions to be equally weighted. But you have to listen to the sentence rather than just look at the logical relations. Bingley and Noetica’s version with the comma doing service for the semicolon might be semantically identical to the original, but it would have an entirely different intonation, with a list-continuation rise after “relevant” and “discourses”. The semicolon gives a falling cadence after “relevant”, and in speech that would give what follows the value of a supplementary idea; in fact, if you insisted on a substitute, a full stop (=period) would be closer to the mark (though it would leave a stylistically much more marked sentence fragment). In other words, though the semicolon may not lead to “a truly distinct third way of construing the sentence”, what it does convey is a sense of the sentence as a thought unfolding, rather than a perfectly crafted artifact.

  34. Noetica says:

    Marie-Lucie:
    I did not really expect that anyone would pick up an oblique reference to Gough (yes, “Goff”) Whitlam. I barely apprehended it myself.
    Breffni:
    I labelled parts of the sentence for a purpose. If you like, call the main part “M”. Now, in terms of M, A, B, and C, please explain:
    What are you identifying as the “propositions”; and by what exact mechanism and to what purpose does the author intend “the propositions to be equally weighted”? Does your alternative analysis demonstrate that the author is genuinely striving for an effect with this punctuation (other than a fashionable sense of insouciant vagueness), knowingly setting aside the more usual possibilities? I agree that a sentence ought to be read aloud if it is to be judiciously weighted: by the author and perhaps also by the recipient. But how exactly does the semicolon work that supposed magic, de vive voix?

  35. Siganus Sutor says:

    This is not a star: *
    Noetica, did Christine de Pisan know that in French the typographical space is feminine, unlike her astronomical brother? These things can be good to know when one doesn’t want to make a fool out of him- or herself.
    Er, what do your rules and rulers say about that hyphen that I have put after him? Writing “to make a fool out of himself or herself” would have been a bit heavy, no?
    Another time we’ll talk about the necessity — or the elegance, or the risks — of putting or not putting a space after the semicolon or the colon — which is no colonist, usually. (Or the use Sacha Guitry made of the dash.)
     
     
    By the way, my totally un-English self totally agree with Bingley’s second proposition (01:00 AM, 7 March 2009).

  36. Siganus Sutor says:

    P.A.J.: I’m British
    That’s your troisième mi-temps (i.e. third half), isn’t it?
    In another game, in another life, maybe you were a Jap — or a J.A.P. — too, who knows.
    ___________________
    Er, Noetica, wouldn’t the norms (U. S., British, Martian or Whatnot) recommend that we put une espace after the first dot in “i. e.”? It would look weird though.

  37. Siganus Sutor says:

    une e-space I mean.

  38. Siganus Sutor says:

    putting or not putting a space after the semicolon or the colon
    ► “putting or not putting a space before the semicolon or the colon”, of course.
    And I am split — like some e-sentences before a colon — when it comes to deciding whether my totally un-English self [i.e. "I"] totally agree could be considered up to the norms or not.
    Okay, enough pouring on that poor post, I is gone now.

  39. mollymooly says:

    I think this punctuation :- is the dog’s bollocks.

  40. A.J. P. HkBC says:

    Yes, it is. It was very popular at school when I was ten, but I haven’t seen it since.

  41. A.J. P. HkBC says:

    My father used to say that Gough Whitlam was a Communist.

  42. dearieme says:

    Aw, AJP, not every preposterous poltroon is a commie. (Is that “preposteros” in American?)

  43. I see now that my own American English rule-behavior has resisted decades of reading texts set differently in other languages, and UK English. Only in the past months have I written much English again, and find myself using lots of dashes. In “compound sentences” in German, the semicolon holds sway (where I would use commas):

    Doch wer der Hoffnung anhängt, darin [Wörterbüchern, Lexika ...] eine einigermaßen kohärente Beschreibung zu finden, an der man sich orientieren kann, sieht sich getäuscht. Weder die große Encyclopédie Diderots und d’Alemberts noch Pierers Universallexikon von 1844; weder die Encyclopedia Britannica von 1902 noch diejenige von 1987; weder der Brockhaus von 1933 noch der Grand Larousse von 1963; weder Meyers Neues Lexikon von 1975 noch der dtv-Brockhaus enthalten das Lemma “Pseudowissenschaft”.

    I don’t hold with semicolons. They seem somehow immoral. I remember grade-school teacher rants against “run-on sentences” such as “X, and Y”, or “X; Y” where X and Y could stand alone as sentences. I can appreciate semicolons used by other people, however, for instance in the two examples quoted by Paul Wilkins at the top of this thread. I suppose I’m like an enlightened priest in that respect: I prefer celibacy, but do not condemn parishioner procreation, so long as it proceeds in an orderly fashion.
    By the by, note the plural “enthalten” (contain) above. In English, “neither X, nor Y, nor Z …” would be followed by “contains”. Germans often use plural forms where I, coming from English, would want to use singular forms – and singular forms where I would prefer the plural. You can sometimes do either in German, but I always worry about the great Editor-in-the-Sky.

  44. Breffni says:

    Noetica:
    What are you identifying as the “propositions”
    First proposition = (M+)A
    The second proposition is compound: (M+)B & (M+)C
    by what exact mechanism… does the author intend “the propositions to be equally weighted”?
    By the use of the semicolon between the two propositions.
    to what purpose does the author intend “the propositions to be equally weighted”?
    I’m not following the distinction you make here between the author’s purpose and the author’s intention. You could just as soon ask “To what purpose does the author intend B&C to be an expansion of A”, if that’s what you think he intended. Maybe that would be meaningful for some kind of analysis, but I don’t see how it’s necessary to proceed to that level of abstraction in explaining the effect of a choice of punctuation. My point is that, if you take the sentence as it’s actually punctuated rather than how you think the author ought to have punctuated it, then the propositions A and (B&C) are in fact equally weighted in the sense that (B&C) is not an expansion or specification of A.
    Does your alternative analysis demonstrate that the author is genuinely striving for an effect with this punctuation… knowingly setting aside the more usual possibilities?
    It doesn’t demonstrate it, no: it presupposes it. If a writing choice produces a particular effect – and this one does, for me – then, other things being equal, I assume the author intended it.
    (other than a fashionable sense of insouciant vagueness)
    I’d quibble with your characterisation of the effect, but how do you justify ruling out some such effect as irrelevant?
    I agree that a sentence ought to be read aloud if it is to be judiciously weighted: by the author and perhaps also by the recipient. But how exactly does the semicolon work that supposed magic, de vive voix?
    Magic doesn’t come into it, nor actual reading aloud. Punctuation often implies a prosody which is no less real for not being read aloud; a semicolon, to me, implies a preceding fall, and a longer pause than a comma. Perhaps this is subjective, but it’s unlikely to be totally idiosyncratic.

  45. A.J. P. HkC says:

    Actually, that’s wrong. It was a later Australian PM, Bob Hawke, who my father said was a commie (“It’s well known”).

  46. David Marjanović says:

    The German example uses semicolons (as opposed to commas) to restart the sentence, so it conveys a thundering voice from on high. “Neither A nor B; likewise neither C nor D; not even either E nor F…” — using commas here would make the voice much flatter and result in “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and blah” — a mere list rather than a series of attention-getters. The author of that example is a good orator.
    The example in the post tries to do the same, but fails, because there’s only two parts to that sentence. I’d use an en dash here. (And I don’t use em dashes at all. They generally aren’t used in German, and it’s silly not to have spaces at even one end.)
    I hate the fact that the en dash is neither on any keyboard nor in any character set smaller than Unicode…
    BTW, I’m not quite happy with the plural in the German example, but it’s not wrong. The author was evidently thinking of the large amount of works he had just cited.

  47. A.J. P. HkcD says:

    It’s not silly, it looks great. Take a look at the New Yorker. The New Yorker is very stylised, though, I admit, and it’s a very old style, but I still prefer it to the European spaces.

  48. David, I overlooked the rhetorical effect. You’re quite right – and I have now relaxed my resistance to semicolons for such a purpose.

  49. asllearner says:

    re: Breffni
    I must admit that on first reading I was of the use a colon or comma school, but after reading breffni I am reminded that I too agree that punctuation often best functions to imitate spoken rhythm or cadence or nuance, and evoke an ideological denouement; hence is thereby forced to break the very rules it lives by…a colon or a dash or a full stop would lose perhaps alter “the meaning” “intended”.
    However, as punctuated, I read the latter part of the sentence (B & C) as being a restatement of the (intended) meaning of the first…more than just equally weighted, but as elaboration (but not expansion) of A. That is to say, that the author intended them to be equivalent; but I read Breffni as saying he/she sees the latter as a separate proposition (“supplementary idea”). If this were so, I would disagree, but much prefer a period.

  50. asllearner says:

    I mean period plus reworking into a full sentence :-)

  51. JE: if he has to pretend to be translating to write them, no problem.
    And George Sale’s translation of the Koran into English. It was the first English translation ever and still quite good if you want to explore more exact shades of meaning, never mind if it came by way of his Latin copy. His footnotes are still more interesting than anyone else’s, but unfortunately he didn’t mark the ayas, or verses, so it’s hard to look up a particular passage.

  52. semicolon deployment
    I first heard the word “deployment” creep into everyday speech after 9/11 when it was used in a sermon about something non-military. Before that I was only aware of a military usage. A friend’s son was deployed (really, truly, militarily deployed) with his national guard unit, fortunately to Europe where he was able to complete his BA by extension courses. Still the idea of “deployment” was emotionally loaded with the idea of one’s children being sent into harm’s way. Now the way “deployment” is used is something like the way the camo style has crept into sartorial choices. It no longer has the emotional impact it once had–it’s just an expression of style.
    That started me thinking about other changes in word usage discussed here lately. The f-word: used to mean something sexual, now it has no specific meaning except to be vaguely negative. Hate: used to mean a violent emotion, now it’s reduced to “hating on” a mere drama with no true emotions below the surface. Racism: used to mean discrimination based on race, now the meaning means whatever someone means it to mean, usually something like “noticing a difference in racial identity”, with a corresponding dilution of the emotional impact of the word. Compare this to the old meaning of “discrimination” meaning something like “to be able to tell the difference”–this word went from a weaker to a stronger emotional content. All the words that seem to be changing now seem to be changing in the other direction, watering down the emotional meaning behind the words. Soon we will have no feelings at all because there will be no words to express them. Doubleplusungood?

  53. Noetica says:

    Breffni:
    Thanks for your detailed reply. Some thoughts:
    I’m not following the distinction you make here between the author’s purpose and the author’s intention.
    I made that distinction without knowing what your answer would be to an earlier question. But anyway, one often intends something for a purpose, no? To speculate, the author might intend to give equal weight to the propositions by such unusual means with the purpose of laying before us a complex thought as it develops in “real time” (your own suggestion, I think).
    My point is that, if you take the sentence as it’s actually punctuated rather than how you think the author ought to have punctuated it, then the propositions A and (B&C) are in fact equally weighted in the sense that (B&C) is not an expansion or specification of A.
    I for one would prefer that the author think again about the whole sentence, as I have said. But if the task is to work on the punctuation, interfering with the words only as much as repunctuating would demand, then I have made my suggestions. I don’t like the present punctuation because, find what justification we might, it fails to communicate the author’s intention reliably. The best hypothesis is that the author did not have a clear intention, or did not write well in accord with an intention, or both. The fact that we have to wrangle about what might be meant is an indictment of the punctuation (and of the wording, I would say).
    If a writing choice produces a particular effect – and this one does, for me – then, other things being equal, I assume the author intended it.
    We have seen that the choice (if choice it be) produces quite different effects in different readers: smart, sensitive, analytical readers. If that is what the author intended – to play dice with our decisions about the meaning – then well and good. But at a first level of analysis, to do that is to fail to communicate.
    … how do you justify ruling out some such effect as irrelevant?
    I don’t rule it out as irrelevant; but I have given my favoured diagnosis, offered my remedies, and made general observations about the ailment.
    Magic doesn’t come into it, …
    But apparently it does. We are supposed to divine the author’s intention, though the punctuation is unusual and ambiguous. He might as well have gestured hypnotically like Mandrake, and conveyed his message without the intermediary of agreed signs with agreed significance.
    … nor actual reading aloud.
    I have often proposed actual reading aloud, to clients and students. I should do it more often myself, as a corrective against the long winding sentences I too often impose on my LHard peers.
    Punctuation often implies a prosody which is no less real for not being read aloud; …
    Absolutely!
    … a semicolon, to me, implies a preceding fall, and a longer pause than a comma. Perhaps this is subjective, but it’s unlikely to be totally idiosyncratic.
    There we differ. Such waywardness delights us in Dickinson, but serves no good purpose in normal prose communication. This “preceding fall” idea is indeed idiosyncratic; and even if the author shares your view, how would you know that? And how can we gain access to your knowledge à deux? Better, in most “public prose”, to use punctuation and words that give the best chance of reliable communication. (I don’t include every piece of playful bloggery under the rubric of “most public prose”, by the way.)

  54. Noetica says:

    Significant Star:
    … did Christine de Pisan know that in French the typographical space is feminine, unlike her astronomical brother?
    I don’t know. I can’t consult my moyen français resources right now, since once again I am a wanderer on the face of the earth, having late last night completed an 800 km drive (try that on Mars) to South Australia, to visit an old paronomastician friend for a few days. Quite washed out from travelling, I fear.
    out of him- or herself.
    Er, what do your rules and rulers say about that hyphen that I have put after him?
    Yes, the Brotherhood has explicitly endorsed such a hanging hyphen. Many would feel uneasy with it, and some would seek to avoid the question by calling for himself or herself. I have no time for such evasions of thorny issues. If we say him- or herself (and we do), we ought to have a definite way of writing it.
    … wouldn’t the norms (U. S., British, Martian or Whatnot) recommend that we put une espace after the first dot in “i. e.”? It would look weird though.
    I understand why you’d want that space (which would have to be a hard, non-breaking space, ugye?). But no: convention and convenience rule in such cases.
    putting or not putting a space before the semicolon or the colon
    I know it’s still standard for French, but we don’t do that in the anglophone world. Again, you’d want a hard space: and many applications convert a normal space to a hard one silently. English Wikipedia does that on the inside of guillemets, if for some reason they turn up in its pages. Of course, the typographic use of smaller spaces adjacent to various punctuation is a separate and more refined matter, and not one to be considered as one types normal text.

  55. Breffni says:

    Noetica: I have to concede that, if the LH readership is at all representative of the expected readership, then the punctuation is de facto faulty. Though I’m surprised that that’s the case: it really doesn’t strike me either as wayward or as some kind of special effect. I find it unexceptionable – or, in fact, quite delicately judged. But, more to clarify where exactly we differ than in the hope of persuading you, consider these questions:
    1. If you had to read the original sentence aloud, would you have a fairly clear idea of what kind of prosody it required?
    2. If so, would that prosody be different from the version with commas?
    3. Would the prosody be closely similar to a version with a dash or colon?
    4. Would the substitution of a dash or colon alter the logical relation between A and (B&C) (assuming the normal range of functions for the semicolon)?
    My answer to all of these is “yes”. And it seems to me to follow that the author has chosen a form of punctuation that (a) indicates a particular logical relation between two propositions, and (b) indicates a specific prosody. Pushing it a bit further, I also find that (c) the prosodic effect corresponds to a rhetorical effect, and (d) it isn’t clear how this rhetorical/logical combination could have been achieved otherwise.
    asllearner: I agree that if the author really intended (B&C) to be a specification/expansion, then a dash or colon was called for. To be honest, I’ve been completely ignoring the actual content of the sentence; my argument is only about the punctuation pattern.
    he/she sees the latter as a separate proposition
    (He.)

  56. David Marjanović says:

    The f-word: used to mean something sexual, now it has no specific meaning except to be vaguely negative.

    That has advantages as well. For example, you can now call someone a demented fuckwit. Or just simply a fucktard.
    Or take the German word Weib. Its modern meaning allows you to diss a woman without making any other implication (say, sexual, for example) about her. The word means nothing beyond “woman I don’t like”.

  57. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve also seen “Fuck, but you are stupid!” a couple of times. It’s an expression of disbelief, similar to Einstein’s quip “two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity — and I’m not quite sure about the universe”.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    Also, new vocabulary keeps up to replace the old one even before it has finished being bleached of all meaning.
    Found just right now on another blog:

    What the fuck does this wank think he’s going to do?

    Morphological peculiarity: note how the subject of this sentence is not called a wanker, but identified with the act of wanking itself. I think a productive pattern is arising from “The stupid! It burns!”.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Or take the German word Weib. Its modern meaning allows you to diss a woman without making any other implication (say, sexual, for example) about her. The word means nothing beyond “woman I don’t like”.
    It seems that German Weib is the equivalent of French bonne femme, which does NOT mean “good woman” in Modern French but has a slightly derogatory sense, without other implications.

  60. John Emerson says:

    I think that “Goodman” and “Goodwife” in English (not used any more) meant “minimum standard of OK”. Not a felon or whore or incompetent or heretic or crippled or accursed or slave or barbarian.
    In the Chinese Diamond Sutra the phrase “Good [shan] man or good woman” is used in somewhat the same sense, just to mean “anyone without blatant problems”.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    I think that “Goodman” and “Goodwife” in English (not used any more) meant “minimum standard of OK”
    Yes, kind of like bonhomme and bonne femme in French, except that the French words were never terms of address as were the English terms.

  62. Breffni:
    I’ll respond to your post when I have leisure and facilities to do so. I’ll be away from fast internet access for a few days, and I have too much else to attend to, so everything’s a bit slow and sluggish.

  63. Noetica: No problem. In the meantime, this is my idea of wayward punctuation (from today’s Irish Times, the Education Editor’s byline):

    the figures give a glimpse of where students – and more particularly – their parents – see the best job prospects.

  64. A.J.P. Crown says:

    That’s got to be a mistake. It doesn’t make sense.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    the figures give a glimpse of where students – and more particularly – their parents – see the best job prospects.
    I think this pretty much follows the pauses and intonation that a person reading the unpunctuated sentence aloud (for a formal presentation) would use.

  66. jamessal says:

    That’s got to be a mistake. It doesn’t make sense.
    Yeah, it’s just bad. The dashes express “more particularly” on their own:
    “…the figures give a glimpse of where students – and their parents – see the best job prospects.”

  67. I used to work as an editor for a publishing firm whose house style was, I suppose, British (the head of the editorial department – and indeed most of the upper administration – was British). That passage should definitely have had a dash instead of a semicolon!

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