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



  1. I'm totally pro semicolon -- very useful and elegant. Interestingly, I've learnt to use the semicolon and appreciate it as a student of English at university -- I particularly remember an English writing course which also included lessons on English punctuation (which is not always the same as Italian). Vive le point virgule! Et vive aussi le dash, qui malheureusement n'existe pas en italien...

  2. Omigod -- how do you live without the dash (which, along with the semi-colon, you've obviously mastered in English)? Time for aggressive action, I think. Launch a campaign to expand Italian punctuation.