A nice post by Ben Dolnick (on the NY Times Opinionator blog) describing how he overcame a Vonnegut-inspired contempt for the semicolon and learned to appreciate it: “But I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly.” Thanks, Paul! (Semicolons previously on LH: 2004, 2008, 2009.)


  1. Amen; Amen; Amen.

  2. dearieme says

    What’s required is a semicolonoscopy.

  3. I didn’t think he had nearly enough semicolons in his article; there were only two that I could see.

  4. He’s still in the process of allowing himself the luxury of using previously forbidden fruit. Give him time; he’ll be tossing them around like confetti.

  5. Tossing them around like John Cowan.

  6. Bathrobe says

    I suggest that using semicolons requires a fairly good appreciation of the uses of punctuation. I know a Chinese speaker with highly competent English (to the level of writing analytical reports for clients, but with a need for some final polishing) who also discovered the semicolon, but for the wrong reason.
    In Chinese, sentences are often run together with commas in a way that would be unacceptable in English, and my friend decided that using the semicolon would be a perfect way to do in English what comes so natural in Chinese. The result was disastrous: long concatenations of sentences joined by one semicolon after another. I eventually had to suggest that semicolons should be avoided altogether. So yes, semicolons are useful, but only if you know how to use them!

  7. No more than one per sentence is my rule.

  8. I agree, Hat, except in lists of lists.

  9. No more than one per sentence is my rule.
    I agree, Hat, except in lists of lists.
    A sentence is not a suitable habitat for lists of lists, I would think. Paragraphs are roomier. In 18C authors of natural history, for instance Buffon, one often encounters paragraphs composed of short sentences tacked together with semicolons in the Chinese manner.

  10. “Among the dead were Mr. John Jones, the noted banker; Ms. Aretha Smith, the famous composer;” etc.

  11. Good point; I was thinking of sentence semicolons, but of course they’re routinely used to separate items that include commas.

  12. marie-lucie says

    JC, good example. Too often newspaper articles list several persons, some with descriptions, but not all, and in many cases, using only commas makes is difficult to know which description matches which person. Semi-colons remove the ambiguity.

  13. jamessal says

    Tossing them around like John Cowan.
    Anyone tosses John Cowan around is gonna have problems. (Sorry, that was too easy: I’ve just been re-watching The Sopranos to see if it’s as good as I remember — so far, no, though I haven’t gotten to the seasons I most admired — and if FX’s Justified is as much better than it than I suspect: a resounding yes, though with the same caveat.)
    Lists with lists, or rather lists with modified items themselves requiring commas: I find this to be a great test of writers’ ears and senses of rhythm — if they can pull off that sort of complex sentence without deploying semicolons. That is, if it should be pulled off, of course; I celebrate semicolons as much as the next guy. But anyone’s who’s read a later Beckett novel will appreciate the potential value of eschewing them.
    I also agree with Hat and John about one per sentence, though of course even that rule can be broken judiciously. Robin and I just read Scoop aloud to each other; Waugh would have found our rule pretty silly — as he would have found his later self, of course. How the author of that book could go on to write Brideshead — the same author who once said, “Seriousness is a form of stupidity” . . . I guess I’ve just joined a long line of speechless readers.

  14. Anyone tosses John Cowan around is gonna have problems.
    Back problems, most likely. 360 lb / 163 kg / 26 stone is a serious amount of weight to toss, almost exactly two Scottish cabers, though I am very different in shape from a larch tree.

  15. I’ll send two Scotsmen over.

  16. James: if they can pull off that sort of complex sentence without deploying semicolons
    That’s an option I hadn’t even considered; but I haven’t really got writer’s ears, unfortunately.
    Waugh was done in by religion, of course. Specifically – and like Graham Greene, Elizabeth Longford & many others, not only writers – by Monsignor Ronald Knox, of Farm Street and Oxford, whose life he wrote. Knox, originally an Anglican like the others, was introduced to Roman Catholicism by G.K.Chesterton.

  17. marie-lucie says

    I have not studied the topic, but I don’t find it too surprising that a number of English writers and intellectuals converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. From what I have seen, having attended a number of Anglican services for various social reasons, it looks like Anglicanism is Catholicism ‘lite’, as well as confined to a single nation (and its later offshoots). After all, its ‘establishment’ was the political act of a near-absolute monarch, it did not result from religious dissidence as in the case of Luther or Calvin (even though the king’s personal and political wishes received a boost from the religious upheavals of the time). So, on the part of pious Anglicans, becoming Catholics must have been a kind of return to the sources and to the universal, rather than narrowly national, appeal of the Church.

  18. There may be something in what you’re saying, regarding both Ronald Knox’s converts and the Oxford Movement earlier. I think you’ve badly misrepresented Anglicanism, however, but I’m not the one to set you straight. You need Bruessel, she’s an Anglican.

  19. Anglicanism is a hybrid of Protestantism and Catholicism without Rome, roughly speaking. Some churches are more typically the former (“low”), others more typically the latter (“high”).

  20. The Church of England is most definitely Protestant. It’s not a hybrid.

  21. It all depends on your point of view, but it definitely started out as “Catholicism without the Pope”; Henry VIII (who should know) persecuted the Reformed church and thought seriously about reconciliation with the Mother Church when he was casting about for a Catholic ally (alas, the Pope wouldn’t go along with his suggested conditions). Here, read about the Six Articles and tell me what’s Reformed about any of that. (Note: I have no dog in this fight but have been reading about the period.)

  22. (Hmm, we seem to be veering back toward JC’s first comment.)

  23. Here’s John Henry Newman, dancin’ the High Anglican Rag in Tract Number 90 (1841):

    Article xxii.—”The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons (de indulgentiis), worshipping (de veneratione) and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing (res est futilis) vainly (inaniter) invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant (contradicit) to the Word of GOD.”

    Now the first remark that occurs on perusing this Article is, that the doctrine objected to is “the Romish doctrine.” For instance, no one would suppose that the Calvinistic doctrine containing purgatory, pardons, and image-worship, is spoken against. Not every doctrine on these matters is a fond thing, but the Romish doctrine. Accordingly, the Primitive doctrine is not condemned in it, unless, indeed, the Primitive Doctrine be the Romish, which must not be supposed. Now there was a primitive doctrine on all these points,–how far Catholic or universal, is a further question—but still so widely received and so respectably supported, that it may well be entertained as a matter of opinion by a theologian now; this, then, whatever be its merits, is not condemned by this Article.

    And here is Lytton Strachey ‘splainin’ it in his biography of Cardinal Manning in Eminent Victorians (1918):

    The object of the Tract was to prove that there was nothing in the Thirty-nine Articles incompatible with the creed of the Roman Church. Newman pointed out, for instance, that it was generally supposed that the Articles condemned the doctrine of Purgatory; but they did not; they merely condemned the Romish doctrine of Purgatory—and Romish, clearly, was not the same thing as Roman. Hence it followed that believers in the Roman doctrine of Purgatory might subscribe the Articles with a good conscience. Similarly, the Articles condemned ‘the sacrifices of masses’, but they did not condemn ‘the sacrifice of the Mass’. Thus, the Mass might be lawfully celebrated in English Churches. Newman took the trouble to examine the Articles in detail from this point of view, and the conclusion he came to in every case supported his contention in a singular manner.

    The Tract produced an immense sensation, for it seemed to be a deadly and treacherous blow aimed at the very heart of the Church of England. Deadly it certainly was, but it was not so treacherous as it appeared at first sight. The members of the English Church had ingenuously imagined up to that moment that it was possible to contain, in a frame of words, the subtle essence of their complicated doctrinal system, involving the mysteries of the Eternal and the Infinite on the one hand, and the elaborate adjustments of temporal government on the other. They did not understand that verbal definitions in such a case will only perform their functions so long as there is no dispute about the matters which they are intended to define: that is to say, so long as there is no need for them. For generations this had been the case with the Thirty-nine Articles. Their drift was clear enough; and nobody bothered over their exact meaning. But directly someone found it important to give them a new and untraditional interpretation, it appeared that they were a mass of ambiguity, and might be twisted into meaning very nearly anything that anybody liked. Steady-going churchmen were appalled and outraged when they saw Newman, in Tract No. 90, performing this operation. But, after all, he was only taking the Church of England at its word. And indeed, since Newman showed the way, the operation has become so exceedingly common that the most steady-going churchman hardly raises an eyebrow at it now.

  24. marie-lucie says

    “I don’t have a dog in this fight” either, as I am not versed in the finer points of doctrine of either Church, and they don’t affect me personally. I am just stating my impressions.
    I am aware of the existence of “high” and “low” Anglicans, and perhaps they are clearly differentiated in England (see the pomp and circumstance at royal weddings, for instance), but the Anglicans in Canada seem to be somewhere in the middle. Other Protestant denominations, without links to the British throne, seem to be closer to the “low” end.

  25. Come on, John. You can’t cite Newman, or Manning via Eminent Victorians, as examples of the Church of England!
    Slightly off topic, talking of the Oxford Movement, I’m distantly related to the weirdest one, Parson Hawker of Morwenstow, whose biographer, S. Baring Gould, wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

  26. I am aware of the existence of “high” and “low” Anglicans, and perhaps they are clearly differentiated in England
    No, not really, although I have heard of churches where the vicar swings one of those silver baskets of burning incense (actually, I think I saw it on television, in a detective story).
    the pomp and circumstance at royal weddings
    They’re just royal weddings. The pomp & circumstance is just royal, it isn’t directly a part of the C. of E. wedding ceremony. I don’t want to upset anyone, but the really peculiar occasion, in my opinion, is the coronation. At one stage during the ceremony the Archbishop of Canterbury and the monarch go off together into a tiny chapel. They have a talk with God, and He asks her to become head of the Church. The concept of it being a hereditary position in the C. of E. is possibly odder, but it’s no worse in some ways than the Roman Catholic system whereby 120 pedophiles choose one of their own as their next moral leader.

  27. marie-lucie says

    I mentioned royal weddings because the other day I watched the latest one on TV with a friend (a year after the event). I don’t mean the ceremony itself – that’s quite standard – but the decor of the church, the types of ceremonial vestments, etc.

  28. AJP, you’re a bomb-thrower after my own heart.

  29. Thank you.

  30. When Newman wrote Tract 90 he was very definitely a clergyman of the Church of England: he didn’t become a Roman for another four years.

  31. bruessel says

    I’m not an Anglican, what made you think that? I’m a German Protestant (= evangelisch).

  32. Sorry, Bruessel. I was sure you were C. of E., but I’ve got no idea why I thought that. Perhaps I’m the only one here. I joined when I was 6 months old and never officially resigned.
    Newman’s ideas weren’t representative of the Church of England’s attitude to Rome or Disestablishment or anything like that. Even the high end and whatever the date. That was the whole point of the Oxford Movement: to persuade the Church of England to change. If the Church had ever agreed with him, he wouldn’t have had to become a Roman Catholic.

  33. (I meant Emancipation not Disestablishment.)

  34. Not representative, no, but not excluded either. If Newman left, Keble remained, and the latter now even has a feast day in the Church calendar. What killed Anglicanism for Newman was his belief in papal infallibility (then widely believed by R.C.s but not yet doctrinal).

  35. marie-lucie says

    I have only vaguely heard of those people and disputes, but if Newman believed in papal infallibility, where did he get that belief from? surely not from the C of E, who did not have to make a place for the Pope in its doctrines.

  36. The Pope told him.

  37. (That was a joke. I am entirely ignorant on the subject.)

  38. Not representative, no
    And that’s how he first came into the discussion: purported to be representative of the Church of England. It’s ironic, because he was a great Victorian theologian, as the Catholics subsequently found out.
    m-l: but if Newman believed in papal infallibility, where did he get that belief from?
    He believed in it only to a strictly limited extent concerning doctrine, and was opposed to the ultr@montanes (mostly Jesuits, there’s a Wikipedia article on them but I can’t link because it’s questionable content), they’re the people who thought the pope had authority over all spiritual and temporal matters.
    I quote from the Oxford DNB:

    Newman began to send instalments of the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to the printers in late September 1845. It was never properly completed (though it was published that year), as the author had decided to become a Roman Catholic on the strength of the argument already advanced and felt there was no more to be said. His thesis was that since a living idea is necessarily a developing idea, and development brings out rather than obscures the original idea, doctrinal development is to be expected and indeed welcomed in Christianity. But if so, then an infallible authority is needed to distinguish true from false developments in the unfolding of a revelation that claims to be objectively true. Catholicism is the only form of Christianity that shows a continual development that purports to be guaranteed by authority, and modern Catholicism seemed ostensibly to be the historical continuation of early Christianity. Nevertheless Newman proposed, albeit tentatively, seven notes to distinguish authentic developments from corruptions: an idea has not been corrupted

    if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last. (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 171)

    The Essay on Development is Newman’s best-known theological work and remains the starting point for modern Catholic theology of doctrinal development.

    (Article by Ian Ker)
    So Newman’s point of view was actually quite sensible. Cardinals Manning & Wiseman were much more receptive to papal infallibility than Newman ever was.
    Only God knows how we got from semicolons to Cardinal Newman.

  39. Ian Ker, by the way, is a Roman Catholic priest and Professor of Theology at Oxford. He’s written quite a lot about Newman.

  40. I appreciate that far, far greater minds than my own have believed in papal infallibility, but how can one take things like that seriously? I guess you have to be a believer. All religions seem to have beliefs that from the outside just look kooky.

  41. ultr@montanes (mostly Jesuits, there’s a Wikipedia article on them but I can’t link because it’s questionable content)
    Sigh. Apparently I once had a spam attack from some entity with “ultram” in its URL and with my usual impetuosity I added that string to the blacklist, not thinking about all the innocent words that would be affected. I’ve removed it now, so we can discuss Catholic theology to the fullest. (And thanks for the enlightening explanation!)

  42. “Questionable content” is no big deal for us. We’ve learnt how to get around it with @ signs. Better that, than millions of spams.

  43. Okay, here’s a big wodge of Lytton Strachey on infallibility (paragraphs shortened):
    Catholic apologists have often argued that the Pope’s claim to infallibility implies no more than the necessary claim of every ruler, of every government, to the right of supreme command. In England, for instance, the Estates of the Realm exercise an absolute authority in secular matters; no one questions this authority, no one suggests that it is absurd or exorbitant; in other words, by general consent the Estates of the Realm are, within their sphere, infallible. [We Americans, of course, are big on the “checks and balances” that Montesquieu thought he saw in the British constitution and that we explicitly wrote into ours.] Why, therefore, should the Pope, within his sphere — the sphere of the Catholic Church — be denied a similar infallibility? If there is nothing monstrous in an Act of Parliament laying down what all men shall do, why should there be anything monstrous in a Papal Encyclical laying down what all men shall believe?
    The argument is simple; in fact, it is too simple; for it takes for granted the very question which is in dispute. Is there indeed no radical and essential distinction between supremacy and infallibility? Between the right of a Borough Council to regulate the traffic and the right of the Vicar of Christ to decide upon the qualifications for Everlasting Bliss?
    There is one distinction, at any rate, which is palpable: the decisions of a supreme authority can be altered; those of an infallible authority cannot. A Borough Council may change its traffic regulations at the next meeting; but the Vicar of Christ, when in certain circumstances and with certain precautions, he has once spoken, has expressed, for all the ages, a part of the immutable, absolute, and eternal Truth. It is this that makes the papal pretensions so extraordinary and so enormous. It is also this that gives them their charm. Catholic apologists, when they try to tone down those pretensions and to explain them away, forget that it is in their very exorbitance that their fascination lies. If the Pope were indeed nothing more than a magnified Borough Councillor, we should hardly have heard so much of him. It is not because he satisfies the reason, but because he astounds it, that men abase themselves before the Vicar of Christ.
    And certainly the doctrine of Papal Infallibility presents to the reason a sufficiency of stumbling-blocks. In the fourteenth century, for instance, the following case arose. John XXII asserted in his bull Cum inter nonnullos that the doctrine of the poverty of Christ was heretical. Now, according to the light of reason, one of two things must follow from this — either John XXII was himself a heretic, or he was no Pope. For his predecessor, Nicholas III, had asserted in his bull Exiit qui seminat that the doctrine of the poverty of Christ was the true doctrine, the denial of which was heresy. Thus if John XXII was right, Nicholas III was a heretic, and in that case Nicholas’s nominations of Cardinals were void, and the conclave which elected John was illegal — so that John was no Pope, his nominations of Cardinals were void, and the whole Papal succession vitiated. On the other hand, if John was wrong — well, he was a heretic; and the same inconvenient results followed. And, in either case, what becomes of Papal Infallibility?
    But such crude and fundamental questions as these were not likely to trouble the [Vatican] Council [in 1870]. The discordant minority took another line. Infallibility they admitted readily enough, the infallibility, that is to say, of the Church; what they shrank from was the pronouncement that this infallibility was concentrated in the Bishop of Rome. They would not actually deny that, as a matter of fact, it was so concentrated; but to declare that it was, to make the belief that it was an article of faith — what could be more—it was their favourite expression — more inopportune?
    In truth, the Gallican spirit still lingered among them. At heart, they hated the autocracy of Rome — the domination of the centralised Italian organisation over the whole vast body of the Church. They secretly hankered, even at this late hour, after some form of constitutional government, and they knew that the last faint vestige of such a dream would vanish utterly with the declaration of the infallibility of the Pope. It did not occur to them, apparently, that a constitutional Catholicism might be a contradiction in terms, and that the Catholic Church, without the absolute dominion of the Pope, might resemble the play of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
    [“much artful infidelity” snipped]
    What the Council had done was merely to assent to a definition of the dogma of the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff which Pius IX had issued, proprio motu, a few days before. The definition itself was perhaps somewhat less extreme than might have been expected. The Pope, it declared, is possessed, when he speaks ex cathedra, of ‘that infallibility with which the Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals’. Thus it became a dogma of faith that a Papal definition regarding faith or morals is infallible; but beyond that, both the Holy Father and the Council maintained a judicious reserve. Over what other matters besides faith and morals the Papal infallibility might or might not extend still remained in doubt. And there were further questions, no less serious, to which no decisive answer was then, or ever has been since, provided.
    How was it to be determined, for instance, which particular Papal decisions did in fact come within the scope of the definition? Who was to decide what was or was not a matter of faith or morals? Or precisely when the Roman Pontiff was speaking ex cathedra? Was the famous Syllabus Errorum [an 1864 document denouncing modernity], for example, issued ex cathedra or not? Grave theologians have never been able to make up their minds.
    Yet to admit doubts in such matters as these is surely dangerous. ‘In duty to our supreme pastoral office,’ proclaimed the Sovereign Pontiff, ‘by the bowels of Christ we earnestly entreat all Christ’s faithful people, and we also command them by the authority of God and our Saviour, that they study and labour to expel and eliminate errors and display the light of the purest faith.’ Well might the faithful study and labour to such ends! For, while the offence remained ambiguous, there was no ambiguity about the penalty. One hair’s-breadth from the unknown path of truth, one shadow of impurity in the mysterious light of faith, and there shall be anathema! anathema! anathema! When the framers of such edicts called upon the bowels of Christ to justify them, might they not have done well to have paused a little, and to have called to mind the counsel of another sovereign ruler, though a heretic — Oliver Cromwell? ‘Bethink ye, bethink ye, in the bowels of Christ, that ye may be mistaken!’

  44. Well, that’s a great ending. But Strachey: Thus if John XXII was right, Nicholas III was a heretic, and in that case Nicholas’s nominations of Cardinals were void, and the conclave which elected John was illegal — so that John was no Pope, his nominations of Cardinals were void, and the whole Papal succession vitiated. On the other hand, if John was wrong — well, he was a heretic (and if that way of illustrating a point by strings of paradoxes sounds like Bertrand Russell – well, Strachey of course knew Russell very well from Trinity College, Cambridge) is ignoring Newman’s thesis “that since a living idea is necessarily a developing idea, and development brings out rather than obscures the original idea, doctrinal development is to be expected and indeed welcomed in Christianity”.
    As the DNB says of Eminent Victorians:

    The religious and educational aims of Cardinal Manning and Thomas Arnold are more scathingly handled than the campaigns of Florence Nightingale and General Gordon but in all the effects of ambition, egoism, and religiosity on their personal relations are revealed, including the implicit consequences for their sexuality. The prose of Eminent Victorians is studied and impersonal throughout; Strachey used complex syntax, antitheses, paradoxes, clichés, hyperbole, understatement, interrupted questions, and exclamations as well as fictional techniques such as free indirect speech and dramatic foils. And while some of the irony in his biographies is satiric, not all of it is; the incongruity of character and circumstance can be tragic or grotesquely comic (as when Strachey describes how Gordon and his enemy finally met face to face when the Mahdi was presented with the general’s severed head).

    I’m probably not the first person to believe that the book says more about Strachey & his times than it does about the Eminent Victorians themselves.

  45. Bathrobe says

    But if you follow Lytton Strachey on papal infallibility, there’s very little of the transcendental divine in there; it’s all about the practicalities of maintaining church dogma in human society. Get out of the petri dish and matters of great import don’t look so momentous (or universal) at all.

  46. When I said “paragraphs shortened”, I meant split, not abridged.
    “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for people to abridge their king, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” —Oliver Cromwell (actually, Ambrose Bierce)

  47. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (born June 24, 1842; died sometime after December 26, 1913)
    Wikipedia. You can’t get much vaguer than that.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Yes, for all we know he might still be alive.

  49. Even that Dec. 26 date is shaky: it’s the date of a letter that no longer exists, being represented in the historical record only by a handwritten summary by someone other than the recipient, and may (indeed, for all we know) never have existed at all.
    In any case, I don’t think any of the other babies of the Class of ’42 (e.g. William James, Karl May, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Mallarmé, Sultan Abdul Hamid II) are still with us, with the notable exception of Pilsner.

  50. And Karl May: Karl May ist unsterblich.

  51. You forgot the Norwegian composer Nordraak, who wrote the Norwegian national anthem, with words by his cousin Bjørnsterne Bjørnson. He’s a big deal here.

  52. Yes, for all we know he might still be alive.
    No bier for Bierce!

  53. marie-lucie says

    AJP: the Norwegian national anthem
    I now have the words and music to the Norwegian national anthem! Last Sunday I sang as a choir member at a religious ceremony in memory of the massacre last year. We had to sing the first verse in Norwegian and the third (and last) verse in English. The anthem is not bad as a piece of music but the key is not set for average voices, who would need transposition to a lower key.

  54. Ja vi elsker!

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