Sunday, September 18, 2005

Pause celebre:

”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?

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.”