Betrayal of the semicolon… a dull, serrated, knife forced through my heart


Today Eusebius McKaiser talked on Power FM about grammar, and had some specific talk about punctuation. Unfortunately I couldn’t tune in, being at the office and having to be all productive; twitter, however, allowed me to at least follow the topic somewhat…

Then the semicolon came up, the most dreaded and underrated punctuation mark of them all.

This is when I cursed the slow internet connection that frustrated me until the show was effectively over, trying to listen live through the online stream. The semicolon needed defense, and I needed to hear what was being said about it; resigning to twitter once the stream clearly refused to load properly, dread filled me when this came up:

And of course, as an avid user of the semicolon, I felt like a dull, serrated knife was being pushed through my heart… Oh semicolon, how misunderstood you are! I might be construed as a grammar nazi, and perhaps it would be an accurate description; though, I would argue that I simply love language in all its complexity. Thoughout my life, I felt that the simplification of the written language created more ambiguity, not to mention misused punctuation. Unlike what people tend to think of me, however, I am fairly forgiving about grammer and spelling mistakes, happens to the best of us; I also understand that proper language use often is linked to issues of access to education and so forth. I don’t berate grammar mistakes, and creative used of language and words beyond the boundery of what would be considered “correct”; I simply enjoy it when punctuation, and specifically semicolons, are used to create complexity, depth, emotion, in words and phrases.

No matter how much I like Eusebius’ wit and his writing, I will never forgive him his last, suggestive, question regarding the semicolon on his twitter feed:

Semicolons have become an obsession to me; they are strangely addictive, despite their complexity (or perhaps because of their complexity.) I love the un-ending it shows, when sentence could (or should) end, but doesn’t; it can create links that are far more subtle than words such as “because” or “therefore”, it is versatile and adaptive. Of course, as someone who write poetry, I find punctuation a useful tool; subtlety can be added, where it otherwise would be lost, and pacing can be controlled. Semicolons, to me, show the complexity of someone’s thoughts and mind; to illustrate with a quote:

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

Even in prose, it allows one to almost set it to music, showing rhythm, momentum, pause; it allows one to read something as it one is listening to it.

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

In my writing, I feel they are indispensable; depriving them would be as if you deprived me of words such as “feel” and “learn”. I’ve always dedicated the University of Broken Glass to the semicolon, and have many places where its use is subtly celebrated (as well as sometimes more bluntly.)

Lastly, a tweet in favour of the semicolon said:

But I would disagree; it would not be the same. It is about the music of the sentence, the rhythm, the feel of it. A full stop would feel almost forced here; the semicolon better shows the sentence’s connection between statements. Those who say that the semicolon has no identity of its own, that it shows indecision, don’t properly understand it; the entire identity of this greatly misunderstood being lies in the blurred lines it creates. The semicolon defies strict category, like queerness defies heternomativity… therein lies its true identity!

If you want to follow Power FM with Eusebius on twitter, check #powertalk or follow @Eusebius; the show is on weekly, Tuesday to Thursday on Power 98.7 FM – South Africa.

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