Has modern life killed the semicolon?

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June 20 2008 4:51 PM

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Has modern life killed the semicolon?

Edgar Allan Poe. Click image to expand.
Edgar Allan Poe, not a fan of semicolons

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."

1865? But surely that's a century off: Isn't modern life to blame?

Not exactly: From the 1850s onward, it's virtually impossible to find anyone claiming a prevalence of semicolons in writing. We now lived, complained a critic in 1854, in a "fast era" that neglected punctuation; by 1895, the Times took it for granted that "[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible." What these writers intuited had an empirical basis: A 1995 study tallying punctuation in period texts found a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.

Researcher Paul Bruthiaux notes the steepest semicolon drop-off came in the mid-19th century—a finding that matches the gap between Poe's 1848 complaint and that 1865 "rejection." Technology is a leading suspect in rapid aesthetic shifts, so consider what debuted in the 1850s that might radically change language usage: the telegraph.

Poe's 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the "Victorian Internet." And that's precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price—trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word—meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that "Boys and girls ... should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon." When the California State Board of Education adopted this textbook three years later, the mark's capitulation was perhaps inevitable. Harper's could decry the semicolon as "almost forgotten among proofreaders" in a 1924 article titled Our Passion for Haste, and the Atlantic that year could bemoan the "spot plague" of periods. So, too, in 1943, when the Times editorialized against "the war that is being waged in some quarters on the semicolon." Their favored villain was now "the writer of action fiction. ... The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation."

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that "All [semicolons] do is show that you've been to college." New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was "semicolon boy." And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that "the killer could be a freelance journalist" because of his "use of a semicolon" in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that "Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.")

Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that "[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is." All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it's tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student's first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

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