Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Death of the Semicolon

Random articles like this one by Paul Collins in Slate are the reason I spend so much time online when I could be reading a book.

If you had asked me cold to define the purpose of the semicolon, I would have said something like:

It's when you want to pause for more than a comma, but keep two thoughts in the same sentence. This article says:

"The 1737 guide Bibliotheca Technologica recognizes "The comma (,) which stops the voice while you tell [count] one. The Semicolon (;) pauseth while you tell two. The Colon (:) while you tell three; and then period, or full stop (.) while you tell four." Lacking standards for how punctuation shades the meaning of sentences—and not just their oration—18th-century writers went berserk with the catchall mark."

If you had asked me cold why the semicolon is dying, I would have said something like:

"It's my fault. I got lazy and started using dashes all the time. And the word 'got'."

Collins says this:

"As Coleridge hints, semicolons hit a speed bump with Romanticism's craze for dashes, for words that practically spasmed off the page. Take this sample from the 1814 poem The Orphans: "Dead—dead—quite dead—and pale—oh!—oh!""

I don't know about "spasmed off the page", but there it is.

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