When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn't over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the 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. "His adversary maintained that it should be a colon."
French passions over the semicolon are running high once again. An April Fool's hoax this year by the online publication Rue89 claimed that the Nicolas Sarkozy government planned to demand "at least three semicolons per page in official administrative documents." Parliamentarian Benoist Apparu was in on the joke—"The disappearance of the semicolon in Eastern France is absolutely dramatic," he gamely proclaimed—and linguist Alain Rey (barely) kept a straight face for a video calling Frenchmen to arms. Reporters were taken in, since, like every great hoax, it was plausible enough to be true. Le Figaro has proclaimed, "The much-loved semicolon is in the process of disappearance; let us protect it," and there was even a brief attempt at a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon—a modern update on the Anti-Comma League that France had back in 1934. French commentators blame the semicolon's decline on everything from "the modern need for speed" to the corrupting influence of English and its short, declarative sentences. It's a charge leveled for years stateside, too, with Sven Birkerts bemoaning the Internet's baleful influence on semicolons a decade ago.
Has modern life killed the semicolon?
The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.
Back then, the semicolon wasn't for interrogation or relating clauses; punctuation was still largely taught around oratorical pauses. The 1737 guide Bibliotheca Technologica recognizes "The comma (,) which stops the voice while you tell [count] one. The Semicolon (;) pauseth while you tell two. The Colon (:) while you tell three; and then period, or full stop (.) while you tell four." Lacking standards for how punctuation shades the meaning of sentences—and not just their oration—18th-century writers went berserk with the catchall mark.
Take this extraordinary passage from Samuel Salter's Sermon Before the Sons of the Clergy (1755):
It is evident then; that, if Atossa was the first inventress of the Epistles; these, that carry the name of Phalaris, who was so much older than her, must needs be an imposture.—But, if it be otherwise; that he does not describe me under those general reproaches; a small satisfaction shall content you; which I leave you to be the judge of. ... Pray, let me hear from you; as soon as you can.
This chaos couldn't last: By the 1793 New Guide to the English Tongue, modern usage peeks through—"Its chief Use is in distinguishing Contraries, and frequent Division." Yet the older implication of a thoughtful pause always underlies the semicolon's appeal. Even as punctuation became more orderly, poet Samuel 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, 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!"
Yet in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe declared himself "mortified" by printers once again using too many semicolons. Poe may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon's popularity. By 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan could boast of "The rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. ... The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon."