Friday 4 December 2009

Commas, Semicolons and Full Stops

I came. I saw. I conquered.
I came; I saw; I conquered.
I came, I saw, I conquered.

All grammatically viable, but the voices are different. Punctuation, as I have said before, is all about signalling in what voice something should be read. So here, for what it's worth, is my ha'penny's worth.

The way I reckon it the full stops make it sound as if you're marking the sentences out with your hands: perhaps banging three times on a conference table with your big hairy hands, perhaps thrusting your index finger towards your interlocutor's face on each verb. Maybe spitting slightly. It's how I would write out a Hitler speech. I think all the words would be delivered at the same pitch.

The semicolons, on the other hand, make it sound like Churchill. It's being said slowly, but with a single cadence running through it. Came would be highest pitch and conquered lowest. I think there could even be a bigger pause on the ;s than on the .s.

The commas make it sound like Bertie Wooster: a sort of devil-may-care off-the-cuffishness. 'What did I do today? Golly, Brutus, I'm not sure. Oh, that's it. I came, I saw, I conquered. That sort of thing, I suppose. Care for a drink?'

That's how I read them anyway. Many people are worried about the near extinction of the semicolon. They sit at home and weep over its absence like a doting mother whose octuplet sons have all run away to sea. The reason for ;'s apparent scarcity is, I think, not that people don't know how to use it, but that most don't want to sound like Churchill. They have no ambition, you see.

Most style guides would have you write like Hitler.

It's also worthwhile remembering that the first writer to really use the semicolon was Ben Jonson. Shakespeare and Chaucer seem to have to got by without. The ; was invented by Aldus Manutius, who also invented italics.

Useful; chap


  1. Is it because Jonson oversaw publishing himself? I think of him as overseeing the printer, being quite hands-on. Could Shakespeare have use semi-colons which the printers forgot about?

  2. there is far too much banging and slapping on conference tables for my liking.

  3. Mr. Dogberry,

    I dislike being the one to whom distribution of negative vibrations is trusted. Sometimes, however, I have no choice.

    What is this recurrent business of yours arguing that text is construed so as to purvey a certain voice or, even worse, the sound of "marking the sentences out with your hands"? There is no sound to that, unless they strike at the table. There is, however, no correlating punctuation to such specific (and yes, Mrs Malaprop, most unfortunate) behavior.

    Written prose is self-sufficient. Punctuation exists within the text regardless of any potential reading aloud. Literature is not reading put into writing. Writing is writing. It has no voice.

    As an old Pacific sailor once told me: Komo mai kau mapuna hoe.


  4. No voice? Perhaps you have spent too long talking to Stephen Hawking. Do you not HEAR a difference when you reading Paradise Lost and Right Ho, Jeeves?
    I have a squint so often read both at once.
    Dip your oar in, dear boy, dip your oar in.

  5. That, Mr. Dogberry, is an imitation.

    By reproducing the manner of speaking of a certain character that is known to me in advance, you force my interpretation in a particular direction. However (grace à Dieu), not all prose reproduces agreed-upon stereotypes, tones of voice or silly dandies. What voice do you hear when you read Homer? I am curious to know, since I do not read Greek. Neither do I know what tone of voice storytellers tended to adapt B.C.


  6. I always hear the Iliad in the voice of a mildly excited Ashton Kutcher. The catalogue of ships, though, I read as a barbaric, shrieking Channing Tatum. This, along with some minor lexical points, is the basis of my conviction that the catalogue is a later interpolation, perhaps even a pericope.

  7. The Antipodean4 June 2010 at 10:11

    Late as always, I read this post this morning then this afternoon got a newsletter in which this guy linked to this slightly random awesomeness; it's certainly not Churchill in tone, but does encourage the use of the semicolon.