04 May 2009

The semi-colon

Having posted the recent Guardian article on exclamation points, I thought I'd dig into my archives for this one, from a year ago, on semi-colons. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but I'm always entertained by a light and lively piece on this sort of subject.

The end of the line?

An unlikely row has erupted in France over suggestions that the semicolon's days are numbered; worse, the growing influence of English is apparently to blame. Jon Henley reports on the uncertain fate of this most subtle and misused of punctuation marks. Aida Edemariam discovers which writers love it - and which would be glad to see it disappear

It is a debate you could only really have in a country that accords its intellectuals the kind of status other nations - to name no names - tend to reserve for footballers, footballers' wives or (if they're lucky) rock stars; a place where structuralists and relativists and postmodernists, rather than skulk shamefacedly in the shadows, get invited on to primetime TV; a culture in which even today it is considered entirely acceptable, indeed laudable, to state one's profession as "thinker".

That country is France, which is currently preoccupied with the fate of its ailing semicolon.

Encouragingly, a Committee for the Defence of the Semicolon appeared on the web (only to disappear some days later, which cannot be a very good sign). Articles have been written in newspapers and magazines. The topic is being earnestly discussed on the radio. It was even the subject of an April Fool's joke on a leading internet news site, which claimed, perfectly plausibly, that President Nicolas Sarkozy had just decreed that to preserve the poor point-virgule from an untimely end, it must henceforth be used at least three times a page in all official correspondence.

In the red corner, desiring nothing less than the consignment of the semicolon to the dustbin of grammatical history, are a pair of treacherous French writers and (of course) those perfidious Anglo-Saxons, for whose short, punchy, uncomplicated sentences, it is widely rumoured, the rare subtlety and infinite elegance of a good semicolon are surplus to requirements. The point-virgule, says legendary writer, cartoonist and satirist François Cavanna, is merely "a parasite, a timid, fainthearted, insipid thing, denoting merely uncertainty, a lack of audacity, a fuzziness of thought".

Philippe Djian, best known outside France as the author of 37°2 le matin, which was brought to the cinema in 1986 by Jean-Jacques Beneix as Betty Blue and successfully launched Beatrice Dalle on an unsuspecting world, goes one step further: he would like nothing better than to go down in posterity, he claims, as "the exterminating angel of the point-virgule". Objectionable English-language typesetting practices, as used by most of the world's computers, are also to blame for the semicolon's decline, its defenders argue.

In the blue corner are an array of linguistic patriots who cite Hugo, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Proust and Voltaire as examples of illustrious French writers whose respective oeuvres would be but pale shadows of themselves without the essential point-virgule, and who argue that - in the words of one contributor to a splendidly passionate blog on the topic hosted recently by the leftwing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur - "the beauty of the semicolon, and its glory, lies in the support lent by this particular punctuation mark to the expression of a complex thought".

The semicolon, continues this sadly anonymous defender of the Gallic grammatical faith, "finds its rightful home in the subtlety of a fine and rich analysis, one which is not afraid to pronounce - and sometimes to withhold - judgment where mere affirmation might be found wanting. It allows the writer to link ideas without breaking a train of thought; by contrast, over-simplified communication and bald, efficient discourse whose simplistic style is the best guarantee of being widely understood is naturally wary of this punctuation mark."

For many believers, the defence of the point-virgule is, of course, a logical extension of France's ongoing battle against the inexorable decline of its language. For despite the existence of a battery of protective laws and directives, and in defiance of the best efforts of the Académie Française, founded in 1634 to stand guard over the French language, and the General Commission on Terminology and Neology, which publishes acceptable Gallic alternatives for Anglo-Saxon interlopers, French is becoming increasingly anglicised.

Words now common in spoken French but among featuring 65 pages of "non-recommended" invaders published recently on the commission's website include email, blog and fast food, as well as supermodel, takeaway, low-cost, coach, corner (as in football), shadow-boxing and (bizarrely) detachable motor caravan. And if it is threatened at home, the language of Molière is equally at risk abroad: once the undisputed language of diplomacy, French is now in serious decline at both the European Commission and the United Nations. "The defence of our language must be the major national cause of the new century," has proclaimed Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, the académie's permanent secretary.

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." M de Montherlant would not, hélas, recognise a great many men of judgment these days.

How, though, are you supposed to use the thing? According to the eminently readable rules of French grammar, the semicolon has several specific applications. First, it allows a writer to introduce a logical balance into a long phrase. Second, it can serve to divide two phrases that are in themselves independent, but whose significance is in some way linked (viz: "The semicolon is necessary; I have just proved it," or, as Michel Houellebecq, one of the very few contemporary French writers to use the point-virgule, would have it: "He was unable to remember his last erection; he was waiting for the storm.") It can also, more prosaically, be used to separate the various elements of an enumeration or list (or indeed to separate groups of similar elements linked by commas within a longer list). Finally, a semicolon can replace a comma when "the use of the latter might prove confusing".

Easy, non?

For Sylvie Prioul, a subeditor at the Nouvel Obs and author of La Ponctuation ou l'art d'accommoder les textes, the gradual disappearance of the ; is, above all, a natural consequence of France's regrettable recent tendency, under the nefarious influence of ever-encroaching English, to reduce the length of its sentences. "The short sentence has signed the death warrant of the semicolon," Prioul says. "People don't like it, writers are afraid of it, journalists certainly rarely use it. It's on the way out, and that's a shame."

Prioul says she recently pored over an entire edition of L'Humanité, France's once-great Communist daily, without finding a single instance of a semicolon, except in a particularly finely turned editorial. "The only places you are likely to find semicolons now in the press," she told the website rue89, "is in opinion pieces, comment columns, anything that's a bit long." What's more, she adds, "People just don't know how to use it any more. It's a strange mix between a comma and a full stop. Sometimes it's closer to the comma; that's what we used to call the 'strong comma' in the 18th century. Sometimes it's closer to a full stop; we use it when we change idea."

According to the journalist and author Guillemette Faure, one of the last bastions of the semicolon in France these days is the Journal Officiel, the official gazette of the French Republic, which publishes all the government's multiple - and, to be fair, exceedingly verbose - laws, statutes and decrees. Alternatively, she says, "It's true that computer programmers use an awful lot of them, mainly as separators. And that's surely the last step on the line before it's reduced to a mere email emoticon."

Michel Volkovitch, author, poet and translator, is another ardent defender. "The point-virgule is precious when the subject matter is complex," he says. "For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections - in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it's precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark."

Upmarket it may be; it will be hard work to save it. As the great grammarian Jacques Drillon concedes in his seminal Traité de la ponctuation française, it is almost certainly "the fear of using it incorrectly" that is contributing most to the point-virgule's demise. Not even a bold assertion from Alain Rey, perhaps France's most famous language expert and editor of the Robert dictionary, that good punctuation "transcends the political divide" and is "the symbol of a republic that reasons properly" may, in the end, protect the point-virgule from the inexorable march of Anglo-Saxon inelegance.

An elegant pause — or merely a 'pretentious comma'?
For and against the semicolon


Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
Lewis Thomas, late US physician and educator

If the semicolon is one of the neglected children in the family of punctuation marks these days, told to stay in its room and entertain itself, because mummy and daddy are busy, the apostrophe is the abused victim.
John Humphrys

Sadly, anyone lazily looking for an excuse not to master the colon and semicolon can always locate a respectable reason, because so many are advanced. Here are some of the most common:

1. They are old-fashioned.

2. They are middle-class.

3. They are optional.

4. They are mysteriously connected to pausing.

5. They are dangerously addictive ...

6. The difference between them is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man.
Lynne Truss

"I think it's extremely useful, but I was taught to use it. Not many people use it much any more, do they? Should it be used more? I think so, yes. A semicolon is a partial pause, a different way of pausing, without using a full stop. I use it all the time. All those ideas of punctuation - they've all changed, and I think it's a pity, because they were used extremely successfully in the past.
Beryl Bainbridge

I think it's a marvellous invention and I wouldn't do without it. Gertrude Stein always thought of commas - grammar of any kind - as subservient and we should never use it at all, which tells us a lot about her impenetrable style. I use them a lot, both in my fiction and in my journalism, because I think it makes an elegant pause. And if you use it well, if you understand it, I think it creates the right pause, the right possibility of a pause, in a sense, which in a world where everybody reads as fast as possible can be a very useful intervention, or hesitation.
Jeanette Winterson

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.
Will Self

I love a good semicolon, but this sounds like one of those Literature is Dead! stories that the New York Times likes to run. I've never heard from a reader confused by one of my semicolons, and I don't remember ever throwing a book aside for being semicolon-free.
Jonathan Franzen

I feel I don't understand them but am rather attached to them. I do not feel I have any rule that applies to when to put them in, and I've always been baffled by being edited by anybody who had a very strong idea about when to put them in. I put them in with breathing rhythms or a feeling that the meaning has slightly changed direction, and I want a stop as opposed to a pause.

I would hate them to disappear. I write by rhythms, both the rhythm of the meaning and the rhythm of the - it's not exactly my spoken voice, it's the voice inside my head, and that needs a lot of different punctuation marks. At the other end of the scale, I use a lot of dashes, which people try to turn into more respectable things like commas and full stops and so forth. But I love semicolons and colons, and I love that idea of a colon followed by a dash when you're about to begin an argument, which has completely gone.
AS Byatt

I am addicted to the semicolon, though for years I didn't know how to deploy it and just wrote run-on sentences instead. The semi-colon is useful when you need a sentence to shift or surprise; to be modified or amended; it allows a generosity, lyricism and ambiguity to creep into the sentence structure. So, yes, it can also be the sign of a self-indulgent writer and should be used with care.
Anne Enright

You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.
George Bernard Shaw to TE Lawrence, on the Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I love it; it is useful for many things. My understanding is, it is correctly used to join two complete, but related sentences; this way, the reader feels the link, albeit subtly. I love it so much, in fact, that I am currently writing a story made up of only semi-colons; it is quite a challenge, but I believe in it very much.
George Saunders


No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.
Kurt Vonnegut

I had decided about this time that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one.
George Orwell, quoted in Lynne Truss's, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

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.
Gertrude Stein


I use it. I've no feelings about it - it's just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of shite, do they? I don't fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They've got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.
Irvine Welsh

I like the idea of semicolons, but I generally find myself deleting them during the revision process and using commas, periods or colons instead. Part of the problem is that they don't show up well on a computer screen and if you're reading quickly, the sentences that use them look odd."
Zoë Heller

I always feel a little bit dubious about it, but I do use it. I somehow feel that one ought to manage without it. What I use it for is really as though I were reading aloud, for the pause which is like a comma only rather more so. The semicolon is, to me, a sort of extra-strong comma. I think of writing entirely in terms of its rhythm, and reading it aloud in one's head, and there are pauses longer than a comma indicates, and I think a semicolon does
for that.
Diana Athill


03 May 2009

Music of the non-primes

This is for you, Kate. The superscript 3 for cubes just showed up as the number 3, so I've put it in parentheses to make the equations less confusing.

April 22, 2009

Sexy maths: what's unique about the number 1,729

The number 1,729 has been appearing in some curious places recently. In the animated sitcom Futurama Bender was the 1,729th robot to be manufactured by its creator. The Nimbus BP-1729, the space craft captained by Zapp Brannigan, also pays homage to the number. The Complicite's hit show A Disappearing Number, features a man obsessed with getting his telephone number changed to include the digits 1,7,2 and 9. And in David Auburn's play Proof, the protagonist Catherine calculates at the beginning of the play that if every day she'd lost to depression was a year it would work out at a total of 1,729 weeks.

The thread that runs through all these strange occurrences of the number 1,729 is that the scripts were written by authors obsessed with mathematics. Because 1,729 isn't any old number but has some very interesting mathematical properties.

Not that every mathematician thought so. Indeed, the reason that 1,729 has such resonance for those obsessed with mathematics is because the great Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy once famously declared that he thought it a rather dull number. He said this while visiting his great collaborator Srinivasa Ramanujan at a London nursing home.

Hardy had discovered this untrained Indian genius some years earlier in 1913 after Ramanujan, a Hindu clerk at the Port Authority in Madras, had sent the Cambridge mathematician letters full of wild and unimaginable formulas. Hardy immediately arranged for Ramanujan to be brought to Cambridge where they'd worked together proving amazing theorems. But Cambridge couldn't accommodate Ramanujan's Brahmin customs. He had been used in India to someone handing him food as he calculated away. Suffering malnutrition, he fell gravely ill and depressed and eventually found himself confined to the nursing home in Putney.

Hardy sat next to his sick friend. But, being mathematicians, both were hopeless at small talk. So Hardy ventured 1,729, the number of the taxi he'd arrived in, as an example of a rather dull number.

Ramanujan's eyes lit up. “No, Hardy,” he replied. “It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two positive cubes in two different ways.”

He was right. Many numbers can be written as two cube numbers added together. For example 35=2(3)+3(3). But 1,729 is the smallest number that has two different ways that it can be split into cube numbers. One way is to write it as 12(3)+1(3) =1,728+1. But you can also express 1,729 as 10(3)+9(3)=1,000+729. And it was Ramanujan's extraordinary ability to recognise the special character of this number that sealed its place in mathematical folklore.

The story is frequently told to illustrate Ramanujan's special mathematical mind. He would often say that his mathematical discoveries came to him in dreams delivered by his family goddess Namagiri. A colleague of Hardy's in Cambridge said that Ramanujan seemed to know every number as if it were an intimate personal friend. But for me this is not the sign of a strange autistic mind, but an indication that Ramanujan was thinking about some of the deep problems that have fascinated mathematicians for millennia. Because the story is related to one of the central topics of mathematics: solving equations.

Take any number N and consider the equation x(3)+y(3)=N. These are examples of some of the most mysterious equations in mathematics, called elliptic curves.

One of the holy grails of mathematics is a problem called The Birch-Swinnerton- Dyer Conjecture, which tries to understand whether equations such as these have solutions or not. So important is the conjecture that there is a $1 million prize for the first person to crack it. But it isn't just important for mathematics. Some of the cutting-edge codes being used in industry exploit properties of these equations. Indeed, air-traffic control uses codes based on elliptic curves to keep information about flight paths secure from hackers. The number 1,729 is just the tip of one of the most mysterious topics in mathematics.

So next time you take a cab, spend the journey trying to unlock the interesting properties behind your taxi's number. As Ramanujan revealed to Hardy, there is no such thing as a dull number.


02 May 2009


This is all so true. I'll resist putting an exclamation point at the end of that statement, for reasons that will be immediately apparent on reading the article below. And my beloved ellipsis, used to "confer gravitas on banal thoughts". . . . Again, I'm guilty as charged.


The joy of exclamation marks!

Exclamation marks used to be frowned upon. Now look what's happened! We use them all the time! Hurrah!!! But what is it about the age of email that gets people so over-excited?


There is a town of 1,471 happy souls in Quebec called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!. The second "Ha!", amazingly, is part of the town's name, not my commentary on the first "Ha!". Unlike, for example, the Devon town of Westward Ho! Ho! There, the second "Ho!" is mine. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is the only town in the world whose name has two exclamation marks. It will remain so until Wolverhampton is renamed Wolverhampton!! to highlight its funky new Black Country vibe, which, all things considered, seems unlikely.

Or maybe I'm wrong. After all, exclamation marks - those forms of punctuation derided by the funless and fastidious - are making a comeback, thanks to an internet renaissance that is bleeding over into every form of written communication. Once it was bad form to end a paragraph with an exclamation mark. Now it's borderline obligatory. Once it was enough to put a sign on your door: "Back in five minutes." Now, without the flourish of an exclamation mark, that sign lacks verve or at least zeitgeisty voguishness. Go figure!

More of that later. First, why did Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! get its enviable name? The Commission de Toponymie de Québec says that Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is so named because in olden times "le haha" in French meant an impasse, and that there was just such an unexpected obstacle blocking a waterway near the site of the future town. Eighteenth- and 19th-century canoeists paddling down the local river came across such a haha, then had to get out of their canoes and take a vexing 80km detour. Hence the town's name.

But if the commission's explanation is right, then surely the town should have been called Saint-Louis-du-Haha. But it isn't. What happened? Someone went potty with the exclamation marks, throwing them around with gay abandon!!! The two exclamation marks serve as reminders of those happy days when we weren't so parsimonious with what Lynne Truss, in her book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, calls, "a screamer, a gasper, a startler or (sorry) a dog's cock". That was her "sorry" not mine.

Novelists (at least male ones) are apt to be mean-spirited about dog's cocks. "Cut out all those exclamation marks," wrote F Scott Fitzgerald. "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes." It isn't actually. When one German starts a letter to another with "Lieber Franz!" they are merely obeying cultural norms, not laughing at their own jokes. Nor is chess notation, which teems with exclamation marks, especially funny. No matter. Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half. In the ninth book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Eric, one of the characters insists that "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." In Maskerade, the 18th in the series, another character remarks: "And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads. That's because in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. They write, for instance, "'I'll see you at the conference' is a simple statement of fact. 'I'll see you at the conference!' lets your fellow conferee know that you're excited and pleased about the event ... 'Thanks!!!!'", they contend, "is way friendlier than 'Thanks'."

Shipley is comment editor of the New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books. Those of you thinking that grown men with serious jobs should be above such phrases as "way friendlier" should realise that in the 21st century, adult appropriation of infantilisms is de rigueur, innit? Today, no one reads or cares about Fowler's Modern English Usage, in which it is maintained: "Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational."

Shipley and Schwalbe argue that in the internet age, a dash of sensation is just what is needed. "Email is without affect," they write. "It has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be." Shipley and Schwalbe are merely offering a post-hoc justification of what already happens online. OMG!!! We like totally used exclamation marks before Shipley and Schalbe said it was OK!!!

Hold on a second. Why should email in particular be without affect? Weren't earlier forms of written correspondence - telegrams, say, or letters - equally so? There must be something else going on. Arguably, users of each form develop styles to suit the medium. Telegrams, for instance, were likely to be terse, if only for financial reasons. Thus, one day Victor Hugo sent a telegram to his publisher. He wanted to know how his new book was doing. His telegram read: "?"; the publisher's reply: "!". The exclamation mark, you see, meant Hugo's book was doing well. The publisher could have deployed sentences of Proustian length to explain the novel's success among the target demographic of 18- to 35-year-old Parisians, but he saved a few centimes by cutting to the chase.

It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that's what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at - ooh, I don't know - the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe. Which is enough to take the joie de vivre out of anyone's literary style. In the springs following the advent of the manual typewriter's exclamation marks, typed paeans to seasonal budding loveliness teemed with exclamation marks. Or at least I hypothesise that they did. I wasn't paying attention at the time.

But technological change is not the only reason for variations in the use of exclamations. Carol Waseleski's unexpectedly diverting paper, Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication, found that women used more exclamation marks than men. But why was this? Are women more excitable? Some theorists (notably D Rubin and K Greene in their paper Gender-Typical Style in Written Language) had argued that the exclamation mark was often a sign of excitability, and that "a high frequency of exclamation points can be regarded as sort of an orthographic intensifier signalling 'I really mean this!'" They also argued that this might convey the writer's lack of stature; that, in fact, a confident person (read: man) could "affirm their views by simply asserting them". Perhaps then the use of multiple exclamation marks is not simply a sign that someone is wearing underpants on their head, but of deeply unmasculine insecurity about expressing one's thoughts. Or maybe that's just my theory!

Waseleski found otherwise. She concluded that exclamation marks were not just marks of excitability but of friendliness, and suggested that one reason women use them more than men is because they were, as a gender, less likely to be socially inept, funless egotists - which isn't quite how she put it. Instead, she wrote: "The results point to the need to reconsider the negative labels that have often been associated with female communication styles, and to investigate [their use] as they relate to email and other forms of computer-mediated communication."

Let's have a go. Why are exclamation marks so big in the internet age? "I haven't noticed any great explosion of exclamation marks recently," says Truss, "but I do think people are generally trying to get expression into email - and exclamation marks are good for getting attention." One possibility is that one can read and send so much stuff that it becomes a less self-conscious medium. Hence those slackers who write everything in lower case, and those who lock their shift keys to FRANKLY ANNOYING EFFECT. Hence, too, perhaps, a free-and-easy way with exclamation marks.

But that's simplistic: there are thousands of emailers who are all-too-conscious - for instance, those who write for that harsh taskmaster, posterity, and weigh every orthographic mark with unwonted care.

We are all, as Marvin Gaye noted, sensitive people with such a lot to give - and some people give (unwittingly) too much of themselves in email correspondence and that gets on the nerves of tight-arse limeys such as me. But the opposite applies: sometimes email correspondents seem to be expressing friendliness when they are really not. Consider email kisses from strangers (as I did in an article). Were all those women who concluded their angry letters complaining about my articles with kisses really coming on to me? Sadly not. Instead, they were bending the knee to a cultural norm of email correspondence whereby friendliness is obligatory. I thought these women were rushing things; in reality they were treating me the same as they would any other correspondent. It's very confusing.

Shipley and Schwalbe are right when they say a sentence without exclamation marks is less friendly than one with at least two. When, though, did friendliness become the arbiter of orthographic etiquette? There is surely a point after which exclamation marks no longer express friendliness. In this post-literal time, exclamation marks become signs of sarcasm as witty correspondents rebel against their overuse. Hence: "I loved your last email! OMG did I LOVE it!!!!!!" The point is they didn't. They were being IRONIC.

The origin of the exclamation mark is uncertain. The first one appeared in print around 1400. The exclamation mark, it has been argued, derives from the Latin Io (which means joy). One day (we hypothesise) somebody wrote a joyful upbeat sentence and to clinch that sense, they concluded it by putting the second letter of Io under the first.

How lovely it would be if we could recapture that original, pre-ironic wonder that made writers slip the o under the I! And how lovely it would be if we named our towns with transforming marks of wonder just as some French Canadians did all those years ago. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! It just raises your spirits to read that lovely name, doesn't it? No? Well, it raises mine!

In and out of style: Punctuation past and present

The full stop

It stops, and it will never stop being useful. Often used for rhetorical effect to break up sentences into. Significant. Words. Or phrases. Ed McBain wrote: "Oh, boy. What a week." The 1906 edition of the King's English lamented "spot-plague", meaning the full stop has to do all the work. In the intervening period, the full stop. Has. Done more work. Than Edwardian lexicographers. Would have thought possible.


I love ellipses, which are also experiencing a revival online (so easy not to finish a thought but instead to lean on your full-stop key .... ), and I use them to seem cleverer. Ellipses confer gravitas on banal thoughts ...

The comma

Use wrongly and hilarity ensues. Thus: "Mr Douglas Hogg said that he had shot, himself, as a young boy." Take out the commas, and Hogg mutates into someone who takes himself out.

The semi-colon

Yay or nay? Literary types divide over this. In France, they have been arguing about it histrionically. Lynne Truss argues that "they are the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes". George Orwell once purged A Clergyman's Daughter of the semi-colons, arguing they were unnecessary.

The colon

Functional, utilitarian. Fowler said that, "the colon ... has acquired a special function, that of delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words". Dull, isn't it?

The question mark

Thanks to Australian uptalking, this, like the exclamation mark, is undergoing a renaissance? Now, it can be used at the end of any sentence? It makes everything you write read like Russell Crowe whining about the media? This, to be sure, is no advance? Or is it?

• This article was amended on Wednesday 29 April 2009. We referred to a German person starting a letter with the greeting 'Liebe Franz!" when we should have said 'Lieber Franz!'. This has been corrected.