Saturday, August 20, 2011

;-) The Life and Times of the Semicolon

In my review of the use of the semicolon the other day, possibly the most misused punctuation mark in our day, I discovered its tumultuous history, its passion producing power, and its unique place in our punctuation paradigm.Semicolons are both chosen and eschewed and desired and disdained. It has technical utility: it may be used to separate items in a series which contain internal commas, for example. It is used between independent clauses when the writer wishes to show a close, but undefined, relationship between the clauses. And , of course, in front of a conjunctive adverb, such as therefore or however. The most familiar usage, I suspect, these days is the use of the semicolon as the sideways winkie smiley face emoticon thingie -- ;-).

My mother instilled in me a strong sense of grammatic rightness and wrongness and the correct use of all of our punctuation marks; and my current reading of The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park, has provided me many enjoyable insights into our language. I have thought of myself, though, as an open-minded liberal descriptivist, but I am becoming more aware of my many latent conservative prescriptivist tendencies. I can't quite get used to "on accident" in place of "by accident" or "acidentally," for example. I am fairly convinced, however, that unless you are a computer programmer or a mathematician, one can have lived a happy, fruitful, and contented life without ever having used a semicolon.

As Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and others have pointed out, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, P.G. Wodehouse, George Orwell, Umberto Eco, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Stephen King have either entirely disdained or used only sparingly the semicolon. As Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country (2005) stated: "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Kurt Vonnegut's political incorrectness to our transvestite hermaphrodite brothers and/or sisters aside, the semicolon did and does have its modern proponents. George Bernard Shaw in a communication to T E Lawrence criticizing his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life." Gertrude Stein said: "They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature." And Will Self, British novelist and short story writer said about semicolons, "I like them — they are a three-quarter beat to the half and full beats of commas and full stops. Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better. I like dashes, double-dashes, comashes and double comashes just as much. The colon is an umlaut waiting to jump; the colon dash is teasingly precipitous." Apparently Shakespeare used comashes, a comma followed by a dash: ,-. They are certainly not very common. If I ever see student essays with comashes, I'll at least know where they came from. Oscar Wilde regularly used the semicolon: "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much. My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s. To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not complain is easy."

T. S. Eliot used semicolons in The Wasteland: 'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 'They called me the hyacinth girl.' And Robert Frost: "My sorrow, when she's here with me,/Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/Are beautiful as days can be;/She loves the hare, the withered tree;/She walks the sodden pasture lane." But a quick read of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl For Carl Solomon" shows about a thousand commas and exclamation points and just one period. Not a single semicolon among those 2956 elegiac tumbling frantic words. And that single period is not even at the end. A quick scan of a couple dozen Emily Dickinson poems showed a fair number of periods and a generous dose of exclamation points and dashes. But not a single semicolon. Fully expecting a Romantic disdain for semicolons in Walt Whitman, I found plenty of exclamations and dashes and appropriately placed periods; Whitman does give those ubiquitous exclamation points and dashes an exuberant workout. But I did find the occasional semicolon.

And while Mark Twain has plenty, Norman Mailer's "the White Negro Superficial Reflections on the Hipster" has only a few. A glance at George Santayana and John Crowe Ransom reveals a reasonable application of the semicolon while Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" has two. And Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" appears to eschew semicolons entirely and only begrudgingly uses commas and even then primarily for speech tags only. "'Another brandy,' he said, pointing to his glass." I found a few in William Faulkner's The Old Man. But only a few. A glance at Joseph Heller's God Knows found this: "Although I never actually walked with God, I did talk with Him a lot and got along with Him in perfect rapport until I offended Him the first time; then He offended me, and later we offended each other." And of David's admiration for Abishag, "The girl is heaven-sent; I cannot avoid the feeling that perhaps I am entertaining an angel unawares."

Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Saul Bellow are clearly aware that there exists such a punctuation mark, but aren't obsessed with its usage. I expected to find, and indeed did find, a judicious use of the semicolon in Henry James'"The Art of Fiction": "A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression." And "The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory too is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction."

A national controversy erupted in France in 2008 regarding the declining use of the point-virgule. Jon Henley in The Guardian in 2008 reports that the French blame the English and Americans for its declining usage. "To listen to France's small but growing army of semicolon fans, the full-frontal assault on the semicolon launched by uncultured modern writers and journalists and spearheaded by those idiot Anglo-Saxons is, sadly, just another symptom of the present-day malaise of French language and culture. As the great early 20th-century Gallic novelist, essayist, playwright and Academician Henry Marie Joseph Frédéric Expedite Millon de Montherlant so succinctly put it in his Carnets: 'One immediately recognises a man of judgment by the use he makes of the semicolon.'" But the usage of the semicolon in France also has a disputatious history. As Paul Collins, Portland State University, points out in his 2009 article in Slate, "Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?", two University of Paris professors dueled in 1837 over the disputed use of a semicolon: 'The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm,' noted the Times of London.'His adversary maintained that it should be a colon.'"

According to a popular online encyclopedia, in 1494 "the Italian printer Aldus Manutius established the practice of using the semicolon to separate words of opposed meaning and to indicate interdependent statements." The semicolon was first generally used in English print by Ben Jonson. Shakespeare did not use semicolons in his manuscripts, but the printed versions do contain the occasional semicolon thought to have been inserted by his contemporary radical modernist transcribers. Collins notes that Samuel Taylor Coleridge mused that "the semicolon is far more common in the elder English Classics. It was perhaps used in excess by them; but the disuse seems a worse evil." As Coleridge hints, says Collins, "semicolons hit a speed bump with Romanticism's craze for dashes, for words that practically spasmed off the page. Take this sample from the 1814 poem The Orphans: 'Dead—dead—quite dead—and pale—oh!—oh!'" Collins also points us to Edgar A. Poe's 1848 "Marginalia" in which Poe declared himself "mortified" that printers were once again using too many semicolons.

The development of the telegraph, an early form of texting, and the high cost of messages is credibly thought to have discouraged the use of the semicolon in the mid 1800's. Twentieth century action fiction is also a historical suspect in the ebb part of the ebb and flow of semicolon usage according to the Times in 1943: "The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation."

Consider the advice of British writer on grammar Lynne Truss: "They are old-fashioned," "They are middle-class," "They are optional" "They are mysteriously connected to pausing," "They are dangerously addictive (vide Virginia Woolf)," and "The difference between them is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man."

So where does that leave us? I say if you are going to use semicolons, use them sparingly and correctly; remember that one can have lived a happy, fruitful, and contented life never having used a semicolon. Now, about that Oxford comma.....;-)


Post a Comment

<< Home