Wednesday 9 April 2008

Faith in semi-colons

The recent article on semi-colons in the Guardian reminds me of a heated Equator debate I had with Natalie at the end of last week about punctuation. I must say that my feeling towards those who skilfully deploy semi-colons is akin to that towards those who have a proper understanding of culinary or sartorial aesthetics. My own habit of, when in pubs, eating only ham and eggs or my ten years of dressing largely only in the sombre shade are compensations for a lack of proper phronesis.

Here, then, is my compensation for a lack of a sophisticated grasp of punctuation: my simple approach (the ham and eggs, or dressing in black, of writing).

Commas: used, in pairs, to delimit sub-clauses in a sentence or, singly, when such a phrase occurs at the beginning or end of the sentence. Used, obviously, also in lists or between adjectives. Although I grasp the rule for using a comma before a conjunction where what follows the conjunction expresses a whole proposition, I never do add such commas.
Colons: used, to adapt what Fowler says, to introduce a clause that comes as the fulfilment of a promise expressed or implied in the previous part of the sentence, whether a list, a phrase or a clause that expresses a full proposition. From choice I would not use a capital letter in the last case though US publishers have imposed that.

Semi-colons: used very sparingly in lists (when commas are also in play) or to tie together two full but short propositions which are thematically linked. In general, though, I usually replace this latter use with two full sentences.
Dashes: used in pairs – I realise that this is quite informal – to introduce any parenthetical remark that isn’t quite so parenthetical as to merit parentheses.

That/which: use 'that' to say which and ', which' to say that. (I follow the clue that if I could add a parenthetical 'as a matter of fact' then I write ', which...' and if not then simply 'that...'. Although talk of restrictive and unrestrictive clauses seems very straightforward in principle, I have to confess to some doubts in practice as to how the subject of the clause is grasped or identified.)
Footnotes: used, I think, only once. I was worried that I had been influenced in writing a paper by PhD supervision discussions with Richard Gipps and so footnoted his work as early as I could in my paper: the first sentence of the abstract. (Some footnotes were introduced into my McDowell book by the publisher. Not my fault!)

The Guardian article seemed to me to reflect the twin tensions in thinking about punctuation. There is a thought that it isn’t just a helpful, historically situated, device to ease communication but that some ways of going on are not just right in the sense of commanding agreement. No, they are really right. Punctuation cuts propositions at their joints. It’s like that aphorism from Nietzsche:

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar

But on the other, it is still arcane. When the author of a Radio 4 play last week wanted to suggest scholasticism in an order of academic monks, one of the characters resists publishing, not a book on angels dancing on the heads of pins, no, as another comments with regret:

I was trying to persuade him to publish his book on the semi colon.

A whole book on the semi-colon? How outré!