Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The semi-colon

From the Guardian, today:

New York has been celebrating the semicolon; a development as welcome as it is unexpected. According to the New York Times, an announcement about the disposal of newspapers, posted on the city's subway, which was to have read: "Please put it in a trash can, that's good news for everyone" was amended by some scholarly hand in the marketing department to insert a semicolon in place of its comma. Congratulations have followed, and rightly; it is usually seen as bad practice to join two sentences together with a mere comma, that is something only the semi-literate do. "In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising", the New York Times reports, "the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism." Not, however, in the Guardian, whose most famous editor was unusually fond of the creatures. The speech in which he declared that comment was free but fact sacred is peppered with them, as in: "It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair." That is how the semicolon ought to be used - as a kind of necessary staging post on the way to the end of the sentence; or as the great authority Fowler put it, to indicate "a discontinuity of grammatical construction greater than that indicated by a comma but less than that indicated by a full stop". This is, of course, dangerous territory; where pedants are on the prowl. Even the best intentioned will sometimes blunder; but as Alexander Pope impeccably said: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."


miss cavendish said...

A topic after my heart. Why did I not read the NYT yesterday?

Anyway, I'd love to pick up this thread in my own blog much, much later today, but may I say for now that my husband (an expert in the history of the English language) and I often have lively discussions about the semi colon. Here's one provocative idea: Is the semi colon gendered?

Linda Grant said...

Is that a syntactical question, or are you asking whether one gender is more likely to use the semi-colon than the other? I myself am a great user of the semi-colon. Indeed, you will be pleased to hear that I am a long standing friend of Lynne Truss; in fact, I was once going into a restauarant and saw her and her publicist engaged in deep discussion at a table outside. I asked what they were discussing and she said her new book on punctuation. I smiled, tactfully.

The rest is history.

Toby Wollin said...

I freely admit that my grasp of English grammar and punctuation is more than a bit hazy at times; however, the one rule I am fairly clear on is the use of the semi-colon.

Deja Pseu said...

I'm a bit of a semi-colon junkie; I can construct a paragraph without one. We were taught that joining two sentences with a comma is a "run-on sentence" and to be avoided at all costs.

Deja Pseu said...

Make that "I can barely construct a paragraph."

Anonymous said...

"it is usually seen as bad practice to join two sentences together with a mere comma"

So very true. I'm no grammarian, but I've been inculcated with that dogma.

miss cavendish said...

Indeed I am pleased to learn you are friends with the most famous grammarian of recent years! My husband teaches her book and my daughters have her children's book.

And yes, I wonder whether one gender uses the semi-colon more than the other. My vote is that women are more likely to use it in the US.