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The ideological conflicts of a semicolon Add to ...

Since last week's ramble on commas seemed to hit a nerve, let's dig deeper into the sweet compost of geekiness and talk about a real punctuation bugbear, the semicolon. The semicolon is perhaps the most hated piece of punctuation in the array, banned from lowbrow journals, shunned by many contemporary writers.

And, yes, this too is an ideological conflict. The opponents of the semicolon claim to be populists, against its pedantic fussiness. They claim to write purer, simpler sentences. I have heard spectacle-wearing McGill-educated novelists boasting at dinner parties of their demotic avoidance of the mark, as if the semicolon were some kind of decadent luxury product, the fugu of punctuation.

The objection to the semicolon is that it can always be replaced by a period. A semicolon joins two independent clauses together in one sentence; those could easily stand as complete sentences on their own. (As in the preceding sentence.) So, the populists argue, the semicolon can be eliminated and the resulting text is punchier, more direct. These are desirable values because journalism schools tell us so: short sentences are held to be more effective. In a business that must attract the most possible readers, claims that the barely literate audience must be fed child-sized sentences make a certain amount of economic sense.

But not all writing is journalism, and not every audience, even for newspapers, requires a stripped-down language. I am a big supporter of the semicolon, as I believe it adds a nuance. When a semicolon joins two clauses, it indicates a conceptual link between them. Not a link as clear as a full colon, which indicates that the second clause explains or illuminates the first. (In the first half of the sentence, I propose a conclusion: here it is.) The semicolon is subtle, which is why people don't like it. It says, here are two parts of a complex thought, and both are equally important. That sentence will flow in a way that two distinct sentences will not.

Flow is something that rule-bound copy editors tend to be insensitive about. Long and rambling sentences can be charming and delightful. Preserving flow is why I am militantly against the practice of adding a capital letter after a colon. In many journals, it has become common to signpost the second clause thus: After a colon, you must add a majuscule. The pattern, I think, is supposed to be that if the second clause forms a complete sentence, then a capital letter is necessary, and if it is just a sentence fragment, then no capital.

This is completely nonsensical to me. A colon is not a period, so there is only one sentence to think about here. There is no need to confuse people with capitals. Too many capital letters in a text tend to be aesthetically jarring and distracting as well. And adding the unnecessary capital is a surreptitious and one might even say insidious concession to the short-sentences camp: it underlines the fact that the thought could, in fact, be divided into two sentences, with a period between them. It renders the colon valueless. It's part of the march toward simplification.

Yes, I know. Who cares?

I was in a meeting with a CBC Radio producer once, doing a show about grammar, and the burning question of the capital letter after a colon came up. He was, as I think most people are, both bemused and amused. "What's at stake here?" he asked politely, with a slight giggle. I had the feeling he was itching to go and write some news about Afghanistan or folk singers or anything real.

I was, in turn, mildly shocked that there were educated people who hadn't thought about this issue. (I mean, the guy had to write essays in university, right? Did he never use a colon?) We -- meaning I and those of you who have read this far in this column -- will always be a cranky and misunderstood minority.

Still, I feel like writing manifestos in block letters and draping them over the Parliament Buildings: "THE WORLD CAN TURN ON A COMMA." I need not bring up all the well-known examples of billion-dollar lawsuits over interpretations of comma-damaged sentences, for what I am really promoting is not practical advantage but artistic elegance. And that cannot really be justified in any practical terms.

 

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