Punctuation is probably the hardest element of written English to get ‘right’, except perhaps for some weird spasms of our grammar. This is not because English punctuation is excessively complicated, but rather because it is constantly being contested, and because the forces that govern approval and disapproval of its use are not so much the rules of grammar as tendencies in style. The inconstancy of punctuation can be shown by looking at one of its most maligned bastards: the semicolon. Tracking its evolution and its uses means looking at the history of reading in the West, and the little semicolon comes across like reading itself: private and ungovernable, dangerous, utilitarian, exorbitant.
Who doesn’t have trouble with the semicolon? The current edition of the Chicago Manual of Style provides a very broad definition of the semicolon: ‘In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would’ (Chicago Manual of Style; see References below). This definition could also be applied to many uses of a comma and, in some cases, of a colon.
In some form or another, the semicolon (and other ancestral marks that fulfil the same function) has existed in different forms since antiquity, used by medieval scribes to indicate abbreviations in Latin or the termination of a psalm, and by Greeks to indicate a question. But the complicated story of modern punctuation in the English language begins in Latin with the Italian Humanists, and the first printed semicolon by the printer Aldus Manutius in 1494, in Pietro Bembo’s De aetna (Watson, 651).
The Humanists, who discriminated between different sorts of pauses and used a variety of punctuating symbols, revived the mark in the name of furthering expression. The writing of the Humanists shows an obsession with the value and agency of human beings. We deserve this extra, punctilious little punctuation mark, claimed the Humanists, because our expression demands it. Petrarch, for example, employed four different punctuation marks, a number almost without precedent, to denote different sorts of pauses (Parkes, 48). This zeal for delineating pauses with different marks was what gave birth to the strange semicolon, half colon and half comma, performing a compromise between the two. It could only have come from a finicky appreciation of pauses of different lengths. There has been confusion about the exact purpose of these ‘primeval sources of improfitable contention’ (the colon and semicolon) ever since (Truss, 111, 112).
As M.B. Parkes points out in his deft history of punctuation in the West, Pause and Effect, the semicolon ‘reflects the needs of those who were accustomed to the habit of silent reading’ (Parkes, 49). It is dependent, then, on the very idea of general literacy, and its patron and sponsor would be the printing press. Its use is for communication between the writer and reader who are distant and unacquainted, because it carries an exact (more exact than its colleagues the comma or the colon, at least) measure of time in a recognisable symbol. In this, it could be our most modern punctuation mark, one of the punctuational heirs to the internet. All languages are codes that refer to other things, but this has never been more literal than on the internet, where everything is text at its source. All computer programming is done with programming languages. These languages are organised in hierarchies as people invent (write) them, in order to pick up where old ones left off, because they are dissatisfied by what they can express (create). We adapt our languages as best we can, to better contain what we need to express. At some point, someone needed their reader to understand that there was a hesitant pause in between one part of a sentence and another, and they needed a symbol to show it.
Punctuation, like the Australian legal system, is supposed to have evolved from a set of precedents, organically. In the eighteenth century, rules-based grammar and punctuation texts were written (Watson, 650). They were meant to be derived from logic and set conventions. Counterintuitively, these books lampooned famous English stylists (such as Shakespeare and Milton) for their ‘incorrect’ use of grammar, rather than exemplifying them. The first of these books to be a major influence was that of Robert Lowth, in 1758. Although he espoused the fashions of the day as ‘rules’, Lowth did make the concession that grammar is a matter of taste. It is from this genre of books that our contemporary bibles of English grammar, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, derive. The fact that these guides must be updated regularly shows that they become outdated regularly. The semicolon gained ground in the nineteenth century as the colon fell out of fashion (which presented a problem: without the colon, the semicolon becomes an absurdity) and then lost ground again in the twentieth century, as our communications started to change rapidly.
Parkes conceives of punctuation as a series of adaptations formed to suit the reader and writer of the moment. He writes that ‘punctuation was developed by stages which coincided with changing patterns of literacy, whereby new generations of readers in different historical situations imposed new demands on the written medium itself’ (Parkes, 2). George Campbell, in his 1776 Philosophy of Rhetoric, agreed: ‘language is purely a species of fashion … It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech’ (quoted in Watson, 650). Punctuation’s vulnerability to fashions of language is reiterated by Theodor Adorno in his essay ‘Punctuation Marks’: ‘The historical character of punctuation marks can be seen in the fact that what becomes outdated in them is precisely what was once modern in them.’ Furthermore, Adorno argues, the way we read punctuation also changes with historical movement. He uses the example of German Expressionism and its preoccupation with the exclamation point. They are no longer effectual: ‘Seen in German Expressionist texts today, they look like the multiple zeros on the banknotes printed during the German inflation’ (Adorno, 301).
Ben Jonson was the first English writer systematically to adopt (or in the opinion of some, abuse) the semicolon. In 1609, English spelling and punctuation had not yet been given a definite standard; Jonson seems to have enjoyed setting his own. Here is an example of Jonson’s punctuation from the first paragraph of The Masque of Queens:
And in respect all evils are, Morally, said to come from Hell; as also from that observation of Torrentius upon Horace his Canidia, quæ tot instructa venenis, ex Orci faucibus profecta videri possit: These Witches, with a kind of hollow and infernal Musick, came forth from thence. First one, then two, and three, and more, till their number increased to eleven; all differently attyr’d: some with Rats on their Head; some on their Shoulders; others with Ointment Pots at their Girdles; all with Spindles, Timbrels, Rattles, or other veneficall Instruments, making a confused noise, with strange Gestures. (Jonson)
Apart from the women wearing rats on their heads and making strange gestures (think Derby Day fascinators and the Awkward Lean), this paragraph seems archaic. If two sentences like the ones above appeared in a novel published today, it would be hard to imagine such use of colons and semicolons not being deemed excessive—not that Jonson’s use isn’t technically correct—because today the semicolon is maligned. Part of the reason for this could be its pedantic, in-between status, as a mark with three uses and a very particular kind of pause. Its use has never been exact or clear, the way that of the full stop has been. Modern detractors of the semicolon include George Orwell, Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut. Barthelme writes that they are ‘ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’ (Barthelme, quoted in Truss, 108). Vonnegut advised: ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college’ (Vonnegut, quoted in Watson, 649). Umberto Eco did not use a single semicolon in The Name of the Rose, and was congratulated for it (apparently he wrote it on a typewriter that had no such key) (Truss, 109). If we can do without the semicolon, then what does that make it? Perhaps it is a tool by which to show your stylistic affiliations, or perhaps a member of a grammatical family that has been outgrown. It is certainly not an indispensable element of language. Punctuation is always trying to show us that its very nature is fashion, a tool to form style, rather than an absolute system against which style is formed.
The question surrounding the semicolon, and indeed all grammar, has always been this: what is its function? Does it aid or obscure the precise transfer of meaning in a sentence? The Humanists believed that each writer must work punctuation out for themselves, rather than using a set of rules. Although this isn’t our conventional wisdom today, it is clearly still the case. Punctuation is a system that each writer adapts to his or her own use, just as much as language is. Hilary Mantel relies heavily on semicolons, and Proust’s are famous, exemplary.
Raymond Carver used semicolons rarely and sparingly, but the edited versions of his work contain zero semicolons—this was part of the stylistic overhaul wrought by his editor, Gordon Lish. There are many places in Carver’s writing where a semicolon could be used but isn’t. A single example, from the story ‘Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit’: ‘It was summer. The door was open. The TV was going.’ This could technically be ‘It was summer; the door was open, the TV was going.’ But the insertion of the semicolon doesn’t improve the text. In this sense, the semicolon is the perfect example of punctuation, because by its very invention it is a matter of taste or judgement or habit. It can’t be considered absolute, as no element of writing can.
No matter to what extent it is a matter of taste, however, punctuation should follow a logic. That logic is physical. Punctuation should support the ways in which we speak and read, both things we do physically, with mouth and eyes. Pause marks are supposed to make it easier for us to breathe and read at the same time, or at least to show us how to breathe and read, as well as transmitting information clearly and unambiguously. This means that the most important thing punctuation does is to regulate the rhythm, the musicality of sentences. Punctuation marks are, above all, marks of oral delivery. As Theodor Adorno argues in his essay ‘Punctuation Marks’, they are hieroglyphic in nature:
There is no element in which language resembles music more than in the punctuation marks. The comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence. Exclamation points are like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats, colons dominant seventh chords; and only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form can really feel the distinction between the comma and the semicolon. (Adorno, 300)
Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, is suspicious of the function of the semicolon and the other punctuation marks in the pause hierarchy (which normally goes comma, semicolon, colon, full stop), and does not accept that they act as musical rests of ascending value: ‘I think it’s rubbish. Complete nonsense. Who counts to two? Who counts to three?’ (Truss, 113) She thinks of them instead as barricades of varying heights in between words, purely as organisers of meaning rather than physical pause. She argues that ‘expectation are what these stops are all about; expectation and elastic energy’ and they exist to ‘propel you forward in a sentence toward more information’, and quotes the essayist Lewis Thomas:
The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added […] The period [or full stop] tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer. (114)
Yet to say that a pause is unmusical because its function is to create expectation in the listener or reader is a mistake. Expectation is musical. A pause anticipates a crescendo. The physical arrangement of a piece of music is dependent on exactly that sort of a pause. Punctuation is for putting music into writing, which includes the building up and breaking down of our expectations. The final sentence of the short story ‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff is a good example: ‘Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is’ (Wolff, 86).
The energy in the clauses of that sentence mount, right up until they fall into the refrain they is, a phrase that has been chosen by Anders, the protagonist, for its pure musicality rather than its grammar. In writing like this, the information that we are propelled towards and the feeling that is created by the physical structure containing the information are inseparable. In fact, Wolff could easily have used a semicolon between ‘softly chant’ and ‘they is’. Stylistically, however, a semicolon would not fit very well; it’s too fussy, just as it seems to be too fussy for Carver. Trevor Butterworth argued in the Financial Times in 2005 that Americans use fewer semicolons because American English writing tends closer to the way that people speak than British writing does, a theory that would fit Raymond Carver well (Butterworth).
The problem with the rules of grammar is that writers make the language. Popular literature has always had the greatest influence on the vernacular, and style is made by an idiosyncratic and creative use of language, punctuation included. Grammars and dictionaries only try to keep up. The ‘tension’ between rules and usage is usually only a question of rules changing in line with usage.
In 1858 Isaiah J. Morris advocated the evisceration of counterintuitive Greek and Latin rules from English and believed that we should base our grammatical conventions on ‘natural science’ (Morris). That is, observing the way English is naturally spoken and written (including the way it evolves) and making rules out of what is current, a method that would more or less render any rules useless. If Morris’s argument has become reality, then the dropping off, or perceived redundancy, of the semicolon in the English language may well have something to do with those writers in English (many of them American) who find the semicolon a cumbersome and inelegant weight. In a highly evolved ‘American’ the semicolon might be a distant memory, along with words like ‘reckon’.
To punctuate is to expose a vision of the world. Gerald Murnane’s self-multiplying clauses push the reader around one hundred and eighty degrees to face him or herself in the story. Elena Ferrante’s commas let adjectives pile up and hit the reader in the face one after the other. James Joyce’s radical force is contained in the use of punctuation. The rules that are supposed to govern our use of punctuation are in constant evolution, playing catch-up to usage. Punctuation, like writing itself, is only bound by a small, weak network of basic rules that make it recognisable and common to reader and writer. The rest, including the poor, ugly little stepchild semicolon, is a matter of aesthetic discretion.
- Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Punctuation Marks’, Antioch Review 3, 1990, <http://www.jstor.org.ezp.lib .unimelb.edu.au/stable/pdfplus/4612221.pdf?acceptTC=true>, accessed 5 May 2013.
- Donald Barthelme, ‘Not-Knowing’, The Georgia Review, vols 55–56, vol. 55, no. 4/vol. 56, no. 1 (Winter 2001–Spring 2002), pp. 170–83, http://www.jstor.org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/stable/pdfplus/41402130.pdf, accessed 15 May 2013.
- Trevor Butterworth, ‘Pause Celebre’, Financial Times, 16 September 2005, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0ca549d2-25a9-11da-a4a7-00000e2511c8.html#axzz2SZjZVrzD, accessed 7 May 2013.
- Chicago Manual of Style Online, 16th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010, http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch06/ch06_sec054.html, accessed 13 May 2013.
Ian Jack, ‘Mark of Friendship’, Guardian, 8 October 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview13, accessed 30 April 2013.
- Ben Jonson, The Masque of Queens, in The Holloway Pages: Ben Jonson: Works (1692 folio), http://hollowaypages.com/jonson1692fame.htm, accessed 14 May 2013.
- I.J. Morris, Morris’s Grammar: A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language, Dialogically and Progressively Arranged; in Which Every Word Is Parsed According to Its Use, Forgotten Books, London, 2013 .
- M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.
- Paul Robinson, ‘The Philosophy of Punctuation’, New Republic 182.17 (1980), p. 28, <http://www .press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/721833.html>, accessed 29 April 2013.
- Karsten Schou, ‘The Syntactic Status of English Punctuation’, English Studies 88.2 (2007), p. 195, <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00138380601042790?journalCode= nest20#.UZWhuBzwOZ4>, accessed 28 April 2013.
- Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Profile Books, London, 2003.
- Sara van den Berg, ‘Marking His Place: Ben Jonson’s Punctuation’, Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 2.1–25, http://purl.oclc.org/emls/013/bergjons.html, accessed 14 May 2013.
- Cecelia Watson, ‘Points of Contention: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Punctuation’, Critical Inquiry 38.3 (2012), pp. 649–72,
- Literary Reference Center, http://www.jstor.org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/stable/pdfplus/10.1086/664555, accessed 28 April 2013.
- Tobias Wolff, ‘Bullet in the Brain’, New Yorker, 25 September 1995, pp. 82–6.