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Standing up for semicolons

Robin Lustig | 18:11 UK time, Sunday, 6 April 2008

The aim of this blog is to try to make sense of the world. And I take the view that you’re unlikely to be able to make sense of anything unless ideas are clearly expressed. And for that, you need – at least when the ideas are expressed in writing – punctuation.

Me? I need semicolons. They give me time to think; they give you, as reader, time to catch your breath. I returned from Bucharest to discover a piece in The Guardian all about the semicolon: there is, apparently, a growing fear that it is on its way to oblivion. (Note, by the way, that I used a full colon in the preceding sentence: that’s because, as here, the clause after it amplifies and builds upon what went before.)

A colleague once told me that I was the only broadcaster she’d ever met who put semicolons into radio scripts. I suppose the sad fact is that I’m a little bit in love with them: I like their half-smile and gentle manner; I feel sorry for them as the world scurries past, too preoccupied to notice what useful creatures they are.

I know it is possible to write sensibly without them … you can use dots – or dashes -- to separate complex thoughts. But when I edit someone else’s work, I always try, when they’re not looking, to insert a few semicolons. It does wonders for the style and comprehensibility of their prose, and it adds elegance to their writing.

George Bernard Shaw apparently once told T.E. Lawrence that not using semicolons was “a symptom of mental defectiveness”. I don’t go that far, but nor do I subscribe to the Kurt Vonnegut view that “they are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

So help me out here ... promise to use at least one semicolon a day. They must not be allowed to die.

Comments

  1. At 11:10 AM on 07 Apr 2008, Mark wrote:

    Perhaps the English language is suffering from a serious malady; semicolon cancer...or semicolon atrophy. I think an examination to find out what's going on is called for; a semicolonoscopy is in order. Personally, I am a dot man myself...perhaps a little dotty. Three dots call for a longer pause...leading to...the surprise of...a punchline. I think this literary style has more...impact! I'm also an inveterate multiple exclamation point user!!!...or as some would say..."abuser."...And I favor the use of quotation marks for further "emphasis." Now have I made myself...perfectly clear??? On the other hand, I do not often use the ampersand. Anyone for a round of "onomatopoeia"???

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  2. At 10:08 PM on 07 Apr 2008, Bedd Gelert wrote:

    You make an excellent point, Mr Lustig, but the fact is that the semi-colon is not the only piece of our punctuation on the 'endangered' list.

    Apart from suffering increasing abuse, apostrophes are under threat because internet addresses do not like punctuation. A large supermarket chain was until recently known on the signs as "J Sainsbury", but known in common parlance as "Sainsbury's".

    But once they went on the internet, the branding gurus no doubt decided that they had to have a consistent brand across all platforms. Or whatever it is that branding gurus say to justify their salaries.

    Likewise the hyphen, which takes an extra 'shift' key to put in, as in great danger of disappearing.

    My favourite example of this is the appearance of the jargon word 'colocation' which is meant to be referring to operating two different businesses from the same premises [Post Office and Shop] but reminds me of those health spa where they promise to cleanse your insides with the aid of a hosepipe...

    The other worry is the disappearance of the letter 'a' from words like primaeval and archaeology to align with the American view of the world...

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  3. At 01:36 AM on 08 Apr 2008, Sean Lang wrote:

    There is no excuse for not using semicolons, colons and so on; not to do so is just laziness. It's not pedantry; it's clarity. Readers always benefit from proper grammar, even without realising it. In fact, making the sentence so smooth you don't notice the structure is precisely what good grammar is for.

    A dash is a bit more dramatic than a semicolon and should be used only when needed for impact. Trying to read pieces which are full of dashes or brackets is exhausting and frustrating, like trying to drive a car that keeps cutting out.

    I too insert semicolons when I am editing people's work, so all is not lost. I felt a warm glow of pride today when my 17 year-old daughter complained of the poor punctuation in a piece of work the teacher had given out. Hope for the future!

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  4. At 05:52 PM on 13 Apr 2008, Mark wrote:

    There ought to be a law. Repeat offenders should be sentenced to a term in the punitentiary or hung by their thumbs for a spell...dangling like a miscreant participle.

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  5. At 09:03 PM on 14 Apr 2008, Paul Dettman wrote:

    This is a tricky topic because merely commenting makes me a contender for pedants' corner. The reason I write is that the Economist's recent special report on the mobile phone suggests that the retreat of 'proper' spelling and grammar will, over time, lead to an inability to think complex thoughts or engage in subtle debate. The theory goes that after we lose semi-colons and apostrophes, and we accept spellings such as cul8r for 'see you later', the people who write these things cease to be able to conduct more intricate conversations. Worrying!

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