Sunday 1 July 2012

Punctuation: semi-colon terrorism from the DfE

And here's your next question (in bold):

4. Insert a comma and a semi-colon in the sentence below to clarify the 
meaning of the sentence:

David eats cake whenever he has the chance I prefer apples oranges 
and bananas.

Why do I feel entitled to call this 'terrorism'? Because the options offered by the question are not the only acceptable versions of how to punctuate that piece of 'writing' (snort, as if it's a real piece of writing and not some piece of concocted examballs). Quite clearly, it's perfectly OK to punctuate it as follows:

'David eats cake whenever he has the chance. I prefer apples, oranges and bananas.'

In a highly unlikely but possible (given a real context), it would be possible to write:

' David eats cake. Whenever he has the chance, I prefer apples, oranges and bananas.' (ie whenever he has the chance to eat cake, I'm off eating my fruit.) Unlikely but possible. But here: WRONG. Of course.

So the terrorism comes in by terrifying children and teachers into thinking that there is only one right way to punctuate this piece of writing and that the semi-colon is a compulsory bit of the toolkit to splash about in a piece of writing. It isn't. I think this is what they're after:

'David eats cake whenever he has the chance; I prefer apples, oranges and bananas.'

So, teachers seeing this terrorism-by-semi-colon will of course have to put 'Teach the semi-colon' on their teaching plan. Teachers reading this will be thinking of how hard it will be to teach a class of 30 year 6s the many subtle - and in many cases optional - uses of the semi-colon in order that the children can get the marks.

By the way, the only time I ever use a semi-colon is in lists where the items on the list are long phrases or clauses eg..'.Today I'm thinking about the time I went to France; the time I went to Devon; the time my father took us to Germany.'

I wouldn't use a semi-colon in the above example. I like short sentences. I like to punctuate them with fullstops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens. Moral of the story: don't read Charles Dickens, you might pick up bad habits.