Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 5 April 2008


I've just caught up with a piece in yesterday's Guardian (I just can't get through it all in the day, and usually catch up over tea in bed the next morning): apparently, there's a hooha in France about the decline of the point virgule (which sounds much more interesting, racier even, than the half-hearted English "semi-colon", don't you think?).

It sounds, as they say, a classically French piece of intellectual anguish, and letters to the Guardian about it today sound a classically English response of harrumphing pragmatism combined with a mild facetiousness.

What are described as the French rules for the use of the semi-colon are what I was taught for use in English. This is interesting, when you consider other differences in practice when it comes to notating punctuation. Each language has its own quirks: take, for example, the different ways of indicating speech (in French, with a long dash; in German, between >> and <<). The Spanish way of using upside-down question marks and exclamation marks at the beginning of the sentences that require them right way up at the end seems somehow to fit the way a flamenco dancer or a bullfighter takes a stance before getting on with the business at hand; and I think I'm right in saying German rarely has a need for semi-colons, if at all.

I wouldn't regard Guillemette Faure's suggestion that a semi-colon could become an emoticon as necessarily a sign of loss or failure. Not only in email but even more in real-time text chat (in which I once had a passing academic interest), what could more elegantly serve to indicate "Hang on a minute, that needs a bit more thought" or even "You do realise you've just said that out loud"?

As you might guess, I'm with the semi-colon's defenders, if only on the Joni Mitchell principle ("You don't know what you've got till it's gone"). I particularly like these two explanations:

Michel Volkovitch, author, poet and translator, is another ardent defender. "The point-virgule is precious when the subject matter is complex," he says. "For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections - in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it's precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark."

and this from Will Self (not a writer I get on with, usually):
I like them - they are a three-quarter beat to the half and full beats of commas and full stops. Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better. I like dashes, double-dashes, comashes and double comashes just as much. The colon is an umlaut waiting to jump; the colon dash is teasingly precipitous.

Of course, as with any lament for a symbol, it's an underlying reality that's causing concern. In this case, I think it's the tide of purely functional, crudely pragmatic rather than reflective prose - the kind that peddles certainties, and avoids complexity, qualification, contradictions. And that is not unique to any one language or culture.

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