the mighty semicolon

Marks: Long associated with literary fussiness, the eccentric uncle of the punctuation family appears to be gaining popularity.

June 26, 1999|By Julia Keller | Julia Keller,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Once dismissed as a fussy, somewhat effete affectation, the white-gloved cousin to the callused, workaholic comma or brutally abrupt period, the semicolon might be coming into its own.

Most people, truth to tell, seem somewhat intimidated by the semicolon; it smacks of deep thoughts and book-lined studies, of long, thoughtful pauses accompanied by rhythmic strokes of the chin. The marks are "so pipe-smokingly Indo-European," essayist Nicholas Baker wrote.

Hence, semicolons historically were deftly avoided. They were the fine china of the punctuation world, when plastic forks would do.

"I've never really been comfortable with semicolons," admits Harold Hirshman, an attorney with Sonnenschein Noth & Rosenthal. "If anything, I'm a comma person."

But if Hirshman wants to be hip, he'll have to start adorning his correspondence with semicolons, those little dot-and-fishtail concoctions that endow sentences with emotional nuance as well as serve a grammatical task.

"Wit," the play by Margaret Edson that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, features a semicolon as a major plot point; a semicolon also figures in newspaper ads for the play, as the mark replaces the second letter of the title.

Semicolons have also come to figure prominently in the newest of writing genres, e-mail correspondence; they serve as what Baker calls "emotional punctuation." A semicolon is essential to the wink or smirk: ;-).

A semicolon reference in the season finale of "Sports Night," the critically acclaimed ABC sitcom -- "Why don't we use semicolons anymore?" the producer Dana (Felicity Huffman) asks her staff -- is further proof that semicolons are hot stuff; they bristle with buzz.

(The only speed bump encountered by the semicolon bandwagon was a story in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine, in which Alberto Manguel called the period the best punctuation mark of the millennium. The period is, he said unconvincingly, "the unsung legislator of our writing system.")

Among punctuation marks, most linguists agree, the semicolon is a relative newcomer, lagging behind the period, colon and comma. Of course, punctuation itself did not become a standard part of written discourse until the late 18th century. Composition had been a haphazard enterprise at best, with writers employing punctuation marks when and how they chose. Spelling, too, was a matter of personal whim -- and for some, it still is.

In the earliest writing of which we have samples, words weren't separated at all; everything was jammed together in a long, confusing string, says Andrea Lunsford, English professor at Ohio State University.

Rudimentary punctuation marks were employed by Greek and Roman writers. The first time a semicolon seems to have appeared -- scholars still disagree, hence the hedging -- is in a ninth-century Greek text. Those primitive semicolons, however, were inverted; the comma part was on top and the period part on the bottom.

The semicolon first appeared in English writing around 1560, according to Paul Bruthiaux in his 1995 article in Applied Linguistics magazine, "The Rise and Fall of the Semicolon."

Semicolons showed up in a 1609 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets; ditto for a 1612 edition of John Donne's works. By the late 18th century, Bruthiaux wrote, the semicolon had been accepted by British and European writers. (Some holdouts remained, then and now; Anatole France, a 19th-century critic, called the semicolon "a symptom of mental weakness." Twentieth-century writer Donald Barthelme said a semicolon was "ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly.")

Semicolons function several ways in sentences. They can divide coordinate clauses that are complete in themselves; they can replace commas, indicating a longer pause; they can separate items in a list.

But the way we feel about a punctuation mark might be almost as important as its grammatical task. As Mina Shaughnessy, a leading composition theoretician, has written, "Punctuation marks produce different psychological effects -- on the writer as well as the reader." The semicolon is a mighty punctuation mark, she believes, because it "has the linking power of a comma and the terminating authority of a period."

Yet to most readers, semicolons are imbued with a decidedly languid, late-afternoon feel; when semicolons are present, you can almost hear the elegant china cup clink as it is gently replaced in the saucer. Gender stereotypes also come into play; semicolons seem most closely associated with the florid, emotional writing often ascribed to women rather than the spare, chiseled prose with which men generally are credited.

Geoffrey Nunberg, principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a linguistics professor at Stanford University, confirms that the semicolon's reputation is a bit flighty and frivolous, more closely aligned to, say, taffeta-bedecked debutantes than to leather-jacketed bomber pilots.

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