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More sex and the semicolon

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 10, 2008 03:14 PM

semicolon_shirt_black.jpgWho’d have thought there was so much more to say about semicolons than I could fit into today’s Word column?

Trevor Butterworth would have, of course. His treatise on the macho prejudice against semicolons, available online, is stuffed with supporting quotes from the likes of James Wolcott:

The semicolon adds a note of formality, and informality has been all the rage for decades [in America]. 'Real' writing is butch and cinematic, so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases.

Not all commentators focus on the semicolon’s alleged lack of masculine bravado. Jon Henley’s article in the Guardian last spring treats the semicolon debate as a French-British conflict -- a Gallic defense of "the point-virgule from the inexorable march of Anglo-Saxon inelegance" -- and it has a nice collection of non-sexy quotes:

You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life. (George Bernard Shaw to T.E. Lawrence, on "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom")
They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature. (Gertrude Stein)

semicolon_shirt_back.jpgThree years earlier, Ian Jack of the Guardian wondered "whether the totality of American literature has fewer semi-colons than British literature," and a reader, Jo Clarke, undertook to dig up some answers for him:

I can report that "Tom Jones" has 5,604 semi-colons, the highest count among my random sample. But the most densely semi-coloned work is "Moby-Dick" with 4,174 semi-colons or 3.4 per 1,000 letters (as against 2.9 for "Tom Jones").

If you want to celebrate National Punctuation Day next month, I’ll be publishing (soon) a suggestion for a Boston-area site to visit. But if a meal is your idea of a proper observance, the NPD website has a recipe for meatloaf in the shape of a semicolon. (I’d be more inclined to celebrate the delicate mark with semicolon-shaped meringues, but then, I haven’t offered a recipe, have I?)

Finally, thanks to lexicographer Erin McKean, you can join the Semicolon Appreciation Society, which offers the T-shirts shown here, proclaiming your appreciation for one of the finer points of punctuation. And yes, they do come in real men’s sizes.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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