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The semicolon: not dead yet

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 14, 2008 03:29 PM

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, which picked up last month's Word column about semicolons, I heard from semicolon fans around the world -- sending me back for another round on the topic in today's column.

Even there I didn't have space for all the good semicolon comments from readers, so here are some of the highlights:

* Meredith Rose e-mailed from Australia: "Loved your piece ‘Sex and the Semicolon’ and couldn’t resist emailing to tell you of an Australian writer, Xavier Herbert ("Poor Fellow My Country," among other novels), who so hated the semicolon he sawed the key off his typewriter. Guess that meant he didn’t use colons either."

Actually, Herbert is quoted in Sean Monahan's 2003 biography, "A Long and Winding Road," saying "Why use a Semicolon (which is an ugly thing) when you can use a Colon, which has symmetry?" So the tale is probably apocryphal, though entertaining.

* Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, sent along a link to his post on the semicolon -- in Orwell's prose and his own -- from Emerson College's ArtsJournal.

* B.G. Thorpe mentioned an appreciation of the Bembo typeface used in the text with "the first ever printed semi-colons," in Aldus Manutius's "De Aetna," 1495. "How can anyone know that that is true?" asked Thorpe.

No one can, of course -- they mean it's the earliest extant printed semicolon; there might have been earlier semicolons that failed to survive. But Aldus gets the credit generally: In Slate, Paul Collins wrote that ancient Greeks used the semicolon as a question mark, and "after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe."

Lynne Truss also credited Aldus with the semicolon in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," and so does the National Library of Scotland, which has Aldus works in its rare books collection, and probably knows whereof it speaks.

* Jesse Jones was inspired by the semicolon column "to re-read the clever short story 'The Creative Impulse' by Somerset Maugham, which pointedly has a density of semicolons."

I haven't read the story, but I found this tantalizing excerpt, which introduces Mrs. Albert Forrester as a writer who "in a flash of inspiration ... had discovered the comic possibilities of the semi-colon":

She was able to place it in such a way that if you were a person of culture with a keen sense of humour, you did not exactly laugh through a horse-collar, but you giggled delightedly. … [W]hatever else you might say about Mrs Albert Forrester you were bound to admit that she was able to get every ounce of humour out of the semi-colon and no one else could get within a mile of her.

* Finally, both Marc McGarry and Peter Ash wrote to remind me that "Wit," the 1999 play by Margaret Edson, makes much of the importance of punctuation in Donne's "Death Be Not Proud." A teacher tells the protagonist that the end of the poem should read,

And death shall be no more,
Death thou shalt die.

A semicolon after "more" is too much, says the professor: "Nothing but a breath -- a comma -- separates life from life everlasting."

So if you can't go admire Emerson's semicolon in Concord to mark National Punctuation Day, you might watch the film version of "Wit," starring Emma Thompson, instead. Or maybe you, like me, are ready for a little vacation from the semicolon.

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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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