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Published: September 16 2005 17:48
By Trevor Butterworth
"The sea spat like a thug into the back garden; fitful clouds unleashed volley after volley of rain; and all around the wind howled as if a ghostly cavalry charge had borne down upon Termon House, an 18th-century architectural curiosity perched above a narrow, stone-wracked beach. It was New Year's Eve on the turbulent coast of Donegal, and inside the kitchen of this lonely guesthouse, the gaggle of celebrants - refugees from the forced gaiety of Dublin and London - were girding themselves for literary battle. Sort of.
”You’re kidding,” said Ann Keatings, an applied linguist, as she absorbed the news I had brought from the US, where I have lived for the past 12 years: Americans see the semicolon as punctuation’s axis of evil. Or at least many of them do. “But I like semicolons,” she protested, “they allow a writer to go further.” Trevor McGuinness, a business manager, was equally incredulous. “Hazlitt,” he said, smacking the table indignantly, “look at Hazlitt!” Had midnight been closer and the bottle emptier, we might have taken him literally; but the point still floated within the grasp of sober minds: if so great a prose stylist as William Hazlitt had embraced the semicolon, then surely we could too?
Now, you may be thinking of a more pertinent question: why, of all the possible topics that might have stirred passions on New Year’s Eve, the semicolon? But why not? Punctuation is hot: Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots Leaves is to this decade what The Joy of Sex was to the 1970s - a guide for those of us fumbling over what should come naturally. And we fumblers are legion. In America, the book occupied a place on The New York Times top-10 bestseller list for 38 weeks, selling more than 1.2 million copies.
What accounts for this sudden surge in punctophilia? Perhaps the general loss of old-school learning - memorised historical dates, multiplication tables, the odd stanza or sonnet - has sent a frisson of intellectual status anxiety through the newly middle-aged middle classes. And what could be more unnerving than a slipshod grasp of punctuation?
Indeed, part of the semicolon’s mystique is the way that it wantonly gives itself to great writing without offering a clear rule for lesser writers to follow. This has perturbed pedants everywhere English is written, leading to the widespread conviction that the semicolon should, on principle, be avoided. In fact, one attempt to quash San Francisco’s gay marriage law last year was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff had used a semicolon instead of a conjunction. A conservative group had asked the court to order the city to “cease and desist issuing marriage licenses to and/or solemnising marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before the court.” As the San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren explained, the word “or” should have been used instead of the semicolon. “I am not trying to be petty here,” he told reporters, “but it is a big deal... That semicolon is a big deal.”
Big deal or not, there is really only one use of the semicolon that is “more or less mandated”, says Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of About Town, a monumental account of The New Yorker magazine (whose history is marked by fractious debates over the placement of commas). And that is to separate series elements containing commas (for example, “The cities represented were Albany, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; and Selma, Alabama). The other principal uses, says Yagoda, are discretionary: “That is I might, with total grammatical correctness and without changing my meaning in the slightest, choose any one of the following: 1. ‘The book under review is utter hogwash; and that is why it is worth examining.’ 2. ‘The book under review is utter hogwash, and that is why it is worth examining.’ 3. ‘The book under review is utter hogwash; that is why it is worth examining.’ 4. ‘The book under review is utter hogwash. That is why it is worth examining.’” Deciding which of the four to choose is strictly a matter of sound and rhythm, says Yagoda - that is to say, personal style. “Writers who like (consciously or unconsciously) to stop and pause, and/or who are under the influence of Hemingway, choose 4. Those who like balanced rhythms might choose 3. Those aiming for a ‘transparent’ style might choose 2. And those who are a little bit enamoured with the sound of their own voice might choose 1.”
This sounds all very liberal, doesn’t it? But writing is a peevish vocation, and when it comes to “style”, discretion is the mother of ink-stained feuds and rabid factionalism. The semicolon doesn’t just divide sentences into two separate but related clauses; it divides prose writers into two mutually antagonistic camps.
To the semicolonic, the case for is as compelling as a cocktail on a first date: you want to be relaxed, convivial, elegant - and neither a hectoring preacher nor a mumbling maniac. You want to woo with words. As the brothers Fowler wrote in their classic guide, The King’s English, “A style that groups several complete sentences together by the use of semicolons, because they are more closely connected in thought, is far more restful and easy - for the reader, that is - than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself; and yet it is free of the formality of the period... “ Or, as the great Cambridge literary critic F.L. Lucas advised in his masterful (and sadly out-of-print) Style, “ ...a writer should be able to vary his length; like a bowler.”
Take, as an example, the opening lines to “Et in Arcadia Ego” in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:
”’I have been here before,’ I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”
Strike out those semicolons, administer an unyielding regimen of commas and fullstops, and the scene is more manic than wistful: instead of reverie, poor Charles Ryder has a case of the jitters.
Now, one may dispute the merits of Brideshead Revisited until the last classical facade crumbles and falls, but it would be capricious to deny Waugh’s prose its allure. And this is the point, whether by sensuous cadence slow or karmically balanced meter, semicolons are weapons of mass seduction. Of course, they can be deployed meretriciously, but eye the well-thumbed passages of great British writing anew and you’ll see them lolling around like mischievous putti, nudging us into nuance, winking ironically, taking us further - further than we might have ever thought we wanted to go.
American writers, however, are not so easily seduced. “Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly, I pinch them out of my prose,” says the American postmodern writer Donald Barthelme in his essay Not-Knowing.
Ditto for Bill Walsh, a top copy-editor at The Washington Post with a sardonic take on matters of style: “The semicolon is an ugly bastard, and I try to avoid it,” he writes in Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print - and How to Avoid Them. And in the August issue of Vanity Fair, readers are warned not to get the punctuation-shy, tough-guy novelist Cormac McCarthy “started on the ‘idiocy’ of semicolons”.
Though I had long noticed a curious lack of semicolons in American print, with the exception of publications such as The New Yorker, and writers such as Tom Wolfe (who seems to nurture every symbol on the keyboard as one would one’s children), it wasn’t until the start of the war on terror that I realised that the absence was deliberate.
”They should be turned into periods,” explained Fred Barnes one day, after I had appeared on his radio show to discuss media coverage of the war in Afghanistan. He explained that this made for shorter sentences and that brevity was the soul of clarity. It seemed to make sense that Barnes, who as the editor of The Weekly Standard is one of America’s most influential conservative writers, should value muscular, declarative prose; politics may require the art of compromise, but political writing should be adamantine in conviction. No orotund stateliness, no “on the one hand but on the other” vacillation, no - as President George W. Bush infamously decried - nuance. And sure enough, Barnes’ prose has the pummelling ferocity of a Maxim gun.
But it was rather surprising to discover that he had joined the coalition of the unwilling to use the semicolon under the tutelage of one of America’s most influential liberal journalists. “That was Michael Kinsley’s rule when I worked at The New Republic,” said Barnes, “and you know Michael’s very smart and has thought very deeply about these things.”
Kinsley is one of the most gifted editors and writers of his generation in the US, having edited The New Republic and Harper’s and launched the online magazine Slate among other accomplishments. Yet Kinsley had what one might call an Oxonian conversion on his way to the stentorian heights of American journalism: he was seduced by the wit and irony of British political writing while on a Rhodes scholarship in the 1970s. Hadn’t he noticed the semicolons?
”I use semicolons and I never really enforced a hard-and-fast rule,” Kinsley responded recently by e-mail from the West Coast, where he has been running The Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages for the past year. “But if abuse is going to be common,” he continued, “it’s simpler and safer to have a flat-out rule. It’s like drug regulation. Drugs are banned sometimes because a minority of users will have negative side effects, or because taking them correctly is complicated, although many people could get it right and would find them helpful. Actually, I’m opposed to that kind of thinking re drugs, but I am OK with it regarding punctuation. Punctuation can’t save your life.”
So how then does the semicolon endanger writing? “The most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism,” explains Kinsley, “is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is. I suppose there are worse crimes in the world. (I don’t know if Osama bin Laden uses semicolons or not.) But Fred did have it right.”
”It’s true that American writers tend to scorn and spurn the semicolon,” says James Wolcott, Vanity Fair’s artfully acerbic critic. “But those with more Anglophile tastes in literature and journalism, such as Gore Vidal or the editors of The New Yorker under William Shawn, sprinkled it liberally. It may be a fear of being thought pretentious, even poncy. The semicolon adds a note of formality, and informality has been all the rage for decades. ‘Real’ writing is butch and cinematic, so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases.”
And yet at the same time it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t admire Gore Vidal’s prose, or crave to work at The New Yorker. Mention Anthony Lane, the magazine’s film critic, at any gathering of younger American writers and there’s a collective swoon, as if Elvis’s hips had suddenly taken on textual form. When, at one such gathering, I mentioned that Lane was something of a semicolonist, one journalist said her editor excised every single semicolon she attempted to smuggle into her prose.
Clearly there had to be something deeply cultural to this aversion. So I spoke to the scourge of Lynne Truss, Louis Menand, a Pulitzer-winning critic at The New Yorker who took a blue pencil to the errors in Truss’s book in a manner suggesting Tony Soprano had taken up copy-editing. Menand, who also teaches English at Harvard, has no problem with semicolons, but acknowledges that this is not the case with American journalism in general. “There’s an animus against the semicolon because it adds nuance,” he says. “It makes the reader think that the relationship between two independent clauses is more complex.”
The semicolon “signals that you’re not expressing a singular thought”, explains the prolific cultural critic, Chris Lehmann. “It signals that there’s tension, that there is some contradictory evidence - and you [have to] sort of trust readers to be able to deal with that, which most editors don’t and many writers don’t.” Menand locates this fear of complexity in the idea that language should do no more than hold up a mirror to the world. “If you subscribe to linguistic transparency, there’s a bias in favour of simplicity,” he says. And the thing is, millions of Americans do subscribe to linguistic transparency having studied The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, a professor of English at Cornell, and The New Yorker writer E.B. White. As Yagoda notes in The Sound on the Page, Strunk and White’s “implicit and sometimes explicit goal is a transparent prose, where the writing exists solely to serve the meaning, and no trace of the author - no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style - should remain.”
Lehmann connects this impulse to realism, “the most stolid literary innovation that Americans can claim in modern fiction, which is all about the faithful representation of reality without ambivalence, self-doubt, without writerly flourishes really of any kind”.
”It’s more a distrust of ornament,” says Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? - How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. “[The Victorian] period is so discredited and the semicolon is an automatic marker of a disgraced genteel style.”
It may seem bizarre to read so much into a stop on the page, but the semicolon is a pause for ambiguity, amusement, complexity, doubt, and nuance. If writing lacks these “genteel” qualities, can we be all that surprised if it is either as dull as a computer manual, or as demagogic as a soapbox on Hyde Park Corner? Perhaps it is not a surprise that stylish writing now has the whiff of radicalism - or, more aptly, that radical writing, in a stunning rebuff to the theory-bearing academic left, is now self-consciously stylish. Thomas Frank’s book has sold more than 500,000 copies in hardback - an astonishing feat for a progressive political screed that was mocked in the dourly mainstream New York Times. For his muse, Frank turned to the sumptuous prose of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.
”If I were linguistic emperor,” says Michael Tomasky, who recently took over as editor of the unabashedly liberal The American Prospect, “not only would semicolons be mandatory, but we’d all be writing like Carlyle: massive 130-word sentences that were mad concatenations of em dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheticals, asides; reading one of those Carlyle sentences can sweep me along in its mighty wake and make me feel as if I’m on some sort of drug. What writing today does that? Some, maybe even a lot, in the realm of literature; but not much in non-fiction, alas.”
Style, as F.L. Lucas observed through pages larded with semicolons, “is a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech.” And surely there is something brutish in being assaulted by wave after wave of fact through prose that has the unyielding rhythm and cadence of a machine gun. That, in the end, is what rattled everyone in Termon House on New Year’s Eve: the storm rolling in from the west was figurative; the hyperpower at the gate was full of passionate intensity, and it did not do nuance.
Trevor Butterworth is an Irish writer based in Washington DC.