Monday 2 July 2012

Semi-colons, semi-colonists, anti-semi-colonists

Nip back to

and you'll see the Gove spelling, punctuation and grammar test (sample) asking 10 and 11 year olds to use a semi-colon.

The semi-colon is neither fish nor fowl, neither a colon, a comma or a full-stop but a combination of all three. For that reason, it can be entirely avoided with very little loss to sanity or humanity. The colon is a handy sign, warning us that we've got a list coming up. The comma is a useful way to divide stuff. The full stop ('period' in the US) is the key marker dividing up in formal writing the sentence, and in poetic, graphic and artistic writing of various kinds almost any kind of utterance - this being one of the most famous examples:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds."

'Bleak House' Chapter 1
Charles Dickens (1852-53)

From a punctuation point of view, it's interesting that Dickens flitted in this passage between full stops, commas and semi-colons without once writing what we are taught is a sentence ie with a complete or 'finite' verb in it. From a performance point of view, I would take these three punctuation marks as giving me three marginally different pauses which in turn would indicate slightly different intonations - thus: least emphatic pause, a comma; middle emphatic pause, semi-colon, most emphatic pause, full stop. Upward inflection at the end of the phrase prior to the comma, flat inflection leading into the semi-colon, downward inflection leading into the full stop.

Can I suggest that there's a lot of fun to be had doing this with people of any age, thinking about writing, performing and sub-editing.

Meanwhile, a bit of perspective on the semi-colon. You really can get through life without it, if you want to. According to Lynn Truss and others who've spent time thinking about such things, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, P.G.Wodehouse, George Orwell, Martin Amis, Raymond Chandler and Stephen King have all managed without.

Like most punctuation marks it was invented by a printer, in this case a fifteenth century printer (Italian), not a writer or a grammarian. With this in mind, it does seem particularly odd that punctuation is seen as something academic or grammatical, whereas a good deal of it was and remains a matter of print-style.

What is outrageous, is that the hacks hired by Gove have foisted the semi-colon on children and teachers as one of many marks of correctness. This is an untruth.

For the record, I avoid semi-colons if a full stop will do ie separating off 'main clauses'. I like the look of short sentences when it's appropriate even if they have a parallel quality or that one clause implies that it needs the following one eg 'He wondered where to go next. He chose the back yard.' - rather than: 'He wondered where to go next; he chose the back yard.' The whole point is, both are acceptable.

The one time I feel a need for a semi-colon is in lists where the items on the list are rather long, and in particular if these long items on the list are so long, they might need a comma within the item, thus:

'I've been thinking about some of the subjects we might talk about next year: whether it's better to look at poetry as a form of narrative, or distinct in itself; whether imagery should always be thought of separately from prosody, or together; whether we should think of juxtaposition and suggestion in the same category as imagery.'

That's the kind of fairly clumsy, heavy kind of writing where I use semi-colons.

I am utterly convinced that forcing primary school teachers and primary school children - no matter how able  - to spend time on this is really a waste of time. I can think of many examples of able children in Year 6 who have found that preparing and preparing and preparing for SATs (let alone this SPAG test) has prevented them from getting on reading the many books they like reading and - even worse - preventing them from writing the novels they were writing. I kid you not.

Preparing for a literacy exam has prevented them from reading and writing.

For goodness sake.