THE FATE OF THE SEMICOLON.

Jon Henley in The Guardian: “The end of the line?

An unlikely row has erupted in France over suggestions that the semicolon’s days are numbered; worse, the growing influence of English is apparently to blame. Jon Henley reports on the uncertain fate of this most subtle and misused of punctuation marks. Aida Edemariam discovers which writers love it – and which would be glad to see it disappear.

As I told Paul, who sent me the link, I have to agree with Jonathan Franzen: “I love a good semicolon, but this sounds like one of those Literature is Dead! stories that the New York Times likes to run.”

Comments

  1. Maybe it’s dying simply because it’s not the most useful punctuation mark. You know, survival of the fittest and whatnot.

  2. Will Self: “I like dashes, double-dashes, comashes and double comashes just as much.”
    Comashes and double comashes?
    The semicolon works best with very short independent clauses. “Eat to live; live to eat.” Whenever I write something with a semicolon, I end up editing it out, either breaking up a run-on sentence or replacing the semicolon with the long dash, as I was taught was proper back in English 102. The dash looks somehow more conversational.
    The dash is also something non-academics (and semi-academics) would be less likely to question whether it was being used properly or not. If you’ve ever had an English 101 instructor who did not know the rules for commas, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  3. I’m a big em-dash supporter, but you’ve got to admire an Irvine Welsh:
    “I use it. I’ve no feelings about it – it’s just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of shite, do they? I don’t fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.”

  4. I pity those poor semicolons. I abuse them horribly in my writing. And yet they just keep coming back.
    I exerted enormous effort in typing the above without a semicolon, by the way.

  5. I gained an appreciation for the semicolon in the works of later English Renaisssance writers.

  6. I use semicolons occasionally, probably at least as often for lists whose items already contain commas as for sentences that could be written separately.

  7. Crown, A. J. says:

    Many of those interviewed in the Guardian piece use it for rhythm, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. I like Diana Athill’s remark:
    ‘I think of writing entirely in terms of its rhythm, and reading it aloud in one’s head, and there are pauses longer than a comma indicates, and I think a semicolon does for that.’
    I’d been thinking that I rarely see a semicolon here, or at Language Log, and I was wondering if that was on a matter of principle. I had given them up almost, out of embarrassment. I have enough trouble using commas appropriately (‘aptly’ doesn’t quite work here, I see); I don’t want to be the only one doing it. I had first thought that language blogs were going to be offering advice about stuff like appropriate commas, but that was before I knew about the linguist’s horror of being seen to be prescriptivist; around these parts that’s tantamount to declaring you’re a Republican and proud of it.

  8. Lugubert says:

    In Sweden, there’s the very unofficial society “Semikolonets Vänner” (“The friends of the semicolon”). No membership fees, no admin, no rules; except you use it whenever arguably appropriate.
    August Strindberg liked them. Good enough for me.

  9. John Emerson says:

    We should start off by declaring Laurence Sterne the standard for punctuation, and then go from there:

    I WISH either my father or my mother,
    or indeed both of them, as they
    were in duty both equally bound to it,
    had minded what they were about when
    they begot me; had they duly consider’d
    how much depended upon what they
    were then doing; — that not only the
    production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy
    formation and temperature of his body,
    perhaps his genius and the very cast of
    his mind ; — and, for aught they knew
    to the contrary, even the fortunes of his
    whole house might take their turn from
    the humours and dispositions which were
    then uppermost : —- Had they duly
    weighed and considered all this, and
    proceeded accordingly, —- I am verily
    persuaded I should have made a quite
    different figure in the world, from that,
    in which the reader is likely to see me. –
    Believe me, good folks, this is not so
    inconsiderable a thing as many of you
    may think it ; — you have all, I dare say,
    heard of the animal spirits, as how they are
    transfused from father to son, &c. &c.–
    and a great deal to that purpose : — Well,
    you may take my word, that nine parts
    in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense,
    his successes and miscarriages in this
    world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains
    you put them into ; so that when they
    are once set a-going, whether right or
    wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, — away
    they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and
    by treading the same steps over and over
    again, they presently make a road of it,
    as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk,
    which, when they are once used to, the
    Devil himself sometimes shall not be able
    to drive them off it.

  10. I guess my primary use is in lists of items that contain commas, too.
    The Verb had a chat about colons and semicolons some months back. I only recall “semicolon=shed, colon=conservatory” as part of a very involved … simile(?).
    À propos of nothing, the famous Danish fictional character Knagsted from Livsens Ondskab by that lovable misantrope Gustav Wied (“Women, children and animals are happy, but we, humans …”) had the unusual hobby of collection commas – or so he claimed.

  11. I once wrote a story — warning: erotica — where for reasons that seemed good at the time I wished to use no punctuation except the comma and the period (the question mark and the exclamation mark were already ruled out by the nature of the text, a monologue or first-person narrative). Though by no means comparable to the agonies of giving up the letter e, or even avoiding all words of alien origin, nevertheless it just about killed me to give up, even temporarily, the dash, the parentheses, the colon, and above all the semicolon.

  12. mollymooly says:

    Punctuation can represent either the rhythms, pauses, and stresses of spoken language; or the logical divisions and connections of the meanings expressed. My impression is that, sometimes, British English conventions reflect speech where American conventions reflect logic. The influence of one region or language’s punctuation conventions on another’s is an interesting-sounding area about which I know nothing.
    Alls I knows is that I could never write “Eat to live; live to eat.” with a semicolon instead of a comma.

  13. Edward J. Cunningham says:

    OK, so you CAN make comments to these posts! I guess there’s a time limit because the older posts I have been reading do not allow comments anymore.

  14. Funnily enough, I use the semicolon in English much more often than in French; I find that French prosody is often better served with a comma splice or a sentence break. (Of course, as I’m not a native French speaker, my opinion might not mean very much.)

  15. John Emerson says:

    Totally, totally off topic:
    Coin of Vercingetorix. In case you were wondering how his name was really spelled. (Source).
    I really love the internet. And Google.

  16. “Toujours selon nos informations, que l’Elysée se refusait lundi à commenter, une règle serait d’ores et déjà dans les tiroirs: au moins trois points-virgules par page dans chaque document émanant de l’administration”
    This is from an April Fool’s Day article about the semi-colon… apparently, the government must now use at least three semi-colons per page in official documents :)
    The whole article is here: http://www.rue89.com/2008/04/01/lelysee-lance-une-mission-pour-sauver-le-point-virgule

  17. John Emerson says:

    Contrary to advertising, this is probably not Vervingetorix, but some other Gaul or a generic Gaul.

  18. I’d been thinking that I rarely see a semicolon here
    Oh, I use lots of them; I can’t answer for anyone else.
    I guess there’s a time limit because the older posts I have been reading do not allow comments anymore.
    Unfortunately, that’s largely true, because of the @$#%&! spammers. Open comment threads attract them like flies, and so after the posts slide off the front page and stop attracting real commenters on a regular basis, I close them as soon as the first spam comments show up; otherwise I’d do little else but delete spam comments. I hate it, because I enjoy seeing new comments on old posts, but such is life in this ever-changing world in which we live in.

  19. ;-)

  20. Edward J. Cunningham says:

    Unfortunately, that’s largely true, because of the @$#%&! spammers. Open comment threads attract them like flies, and so after the posts slide off the front page and stop attracting real commenters on a regular basis, I close them as soon as the first spam comments show up; otherwise I’d do little else but delete spam comments. I hate it, because I enjoy seeing new comments on old posts, but such is life in this ever-changing world in which we live in.
    Thanks for explaining! I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled on current posts instead of just looking for stuff in the archives!

  21. Alls I knows is that I could never write “Eat to live; live to eat.” with a semicolon instead of a comma.
    Comma splice? Without a conjunction?!? I know it’s a short sentence, but, but, but…isn’t that as naughty as a run-on sentence? *shiver*
    I like this semicolon example even better:
    “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
    (Peter Drucker)

  22. John Emerson says:

    Proverbs can break any rule.

  23. Crown, A. J. says:

    a generic Gaul
    Vercingetorix had a stressful life; and as we get older, many of us begin to look a bit like this in the mornings. My spelling checker doesn’t like Vercingetorix at all. Someone at school always stressed the fourth syllable rather than the third, like everyone else, and subsequently became an accountant.

  24. It shall always live in computer programs…

  25. mollymooly says:

    I think the comma splice is more frowned upon in the US than the UK (or my Ireland). I see this as evidence of my hypothetical speech/logic dichotomy, though Americans might just call it sloppiness.

  26. @mollymooly
    Oh, language does change and evolve; that’s probably exactly how it happens.
    When I was a child and asked “Can I have an apple” the response was “I don’t know, can you?” the point being that the modal “can” means ability and that “may” was the correct modal for permission. Imagine the gasps in the classroom when we were getting ready to student teach a particular ESL lesson and it turned out to be how to use the modal “can” for permission.
    Generations of children asking for stuff had finally worn down the resistance to “can I”, and now it’s in the textbooks as an example of correct usage.
    But then there’s the flip side of incorrect usage that it’s a marker for a someone who didn’t pay attention in class. How many times do you see the incorrect use of their and there in blog comments? The person who writes like that is invariably an idiot in other ways as well.
    “Can I” sounds right to me and it sounded right to that class of future ESL instructors. The comma splice doesn’t sound right to me–maybe in poetry, okay, but it just looks like an error, a subtle error like a split infinitive or the abbreviation “Mr.” without the period, that just makes you a little uneasy without knowing why.

  27. John Emerson says:

    How many times do you see the incorrect use of their and there in blog comments? The person who writes like that is invariably an idiot in other ways as well.
    Not true at all, unless I’m an idiot. And I see it in others. Matt Yglesias is famous for that kind of thing.
    If you see me making that kind of mistake, and even worse mistakes, it’s because I was typing fast and posted before editing.

  28. If you think “split infinitives” or “Mr” without a period are errors, you may have a hard time here, even if you avoid calling John Emerson an idiot.

  29. “How many times do you see the incorrect use of their and there in blog comments? The person who writes like that is invariably an idiot in other ways as well.”
    I’m going to recklessly state that I found this remarkable. It’s almost refreshing to see that there are still some people who believe that a split infinitive is an error, and that such people have the gift of knowing that minor spelling missteps invariably reveal a person’s true idiocy. If you think that these are proof of subnormal mental function, you’ll love this one. Hopefully, it will not be too much for you to put up with.

  30. Crown, A. J. says:

    @ nijma: Does the word prescriptive, or prescriptivist mean anything to you? If not, do a search for it here, or search for ‘split infinitive’ over at Language Log. Write what you really believe, but when most people disagree with you (they probably do here), it’s best to be well informed. And if John Emerson is an idiot, then I want to be one too.

  31. Robert Berger says:

    Did you hear about the sword swallower
    who goofed ? Now he has a semi colon.

  32. Robert Berger says:

    Did you hear about the sword swallower
    who goofed ? Now he has a semi colon.

  33. mollymooly says:

    Perhaps the main factor predicting the number of spelling mistakes in a post is whether the poster is a touch-typist or a hunt-and-(ahem)-pecker.

  34. When I called the split infinite a “subtle error”, I meant it was not a serious one. Where would us trekkies be without “to boldly go…” Still, I would avoid the form in an academic paper.
    I haven’t seen either Mr. Emerson or Mr. Yglesias make any errors with there and their. If they do, it may be because they depend on spellcheck instead of actually proofreading. Try some of the political blogs; the trolls have a serious problem with this grammar tidbit. Many an otherwise credible flame or rant has been exposed or discredited by this error.
    My remark seems to have attracted some grammar anarchists; maybe they came over from LOLcats. Dumbing down the language just because some people never managed to pay attention in the 5th grade strikes me as doubleplusungood. To Stuart (and languagelog) who I suspect of ending sentences with prepositions, I can only join Winston Churchill in saying there are some things up with which I will not put.

  35. “To Stuart (and languagelog) who I suspect of ending sentences with prepositions, I can only join Winston Churchill in saying there are some things up with which I will not put.”
    I loathe Churchill’s politics and his egomania/megalomania, but I applaud his mockery of that stupid “rule” about not ending sentences with a preposition. Like the other completely fictional “rule” about split infinitives, it has no place in English grammar, and should be treated with contempt. Which I will ceaselessly do.

  36. Dumbing down the language just because some people never managed to pay attention in the 5th grade strikes me as doubleplusungood.
    I apparently missed the lesson in 5th grade when you learn to never type quickly and always pore over every email and blog post for misspelled homophones that don’t at all affect the meaning of what you’ve written or, obviously, say anything about your overall intelligence.

  37. I used to love semi-colons until someone recommended the dash–now my semi-colon usage is almost nil.

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