Semi-colon terrorists

Michael Rosen’s latest blog is about the ‘semi-colon terrorism’ from the Department for Education. He is anti-semi-colon. He says the semi-colon is neither ‘fish nor fowl’

He says: “I am utterly convinced that forcing primary school teachers and primary school children – no matter how able  – to spend time on this is really a waste of time.”

Well, I for one would like to take issue with this, as a semi-colon apologist. Probably this will be of no consequence to you whatsoever unless you like punctuation or you like me ranting. Feel free to come back tomorrow when I will have got over this little language issue.

Maybe.

Firstly, ‘terrorism’ is silly. It’s like calling people a Grammar Nazi. I don’t like these terms simply because they’re clichéd and also, all in all, a little mark never hurt anyone. Unless you’ve read Cieran Carson’s amazing poem ‘Belfast Confetti’. I’m not a Nazi because I like grammar and order. I like to break the rules as much as the next man. I make up words and play hard and fast with dialect words and regionalisms and sentence structure. I’m not a Nazi because I think there and their are easy to learn and everyone with a modicum of literacy should know how to use them. And I’m not a terrorist simply because I like a semi-colon from time to time.

Here’s a confession. I once went out with a guy because he used a semi-colon appropriately in a text message.

I lurrrrrve the semi-colon and I don’t agree that it’s neither fish nor fowl. Of course you can get away your whole life without using it, but why would you want to? It’s such a delightful thing.

And its rules are simple.

A semi-colon is a pivot. It sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go. It’s a beautiful little balance.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second. Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants to you read something. It can add something (like when you want to put in something extra) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read.

Capiche?

Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

So why single out the semi-colon?

I suspect it’s because Michael Rosen doesn’t fully appreciate its beauty. And it is beautiful. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them. A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder. It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can see my post on the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.

Consider:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens.

Now, Michael Rosen needs to think about his strange and misguided approach to this most elegant of punctuation marks. It brings my sentences together in the most marvellous of ways and being told that it makes writing heavy when in fact it can make writing dance and spin, well, that gets my goat. Michael Rosen needs not to bring in punctuation into his argument about why the British government should not have set rules for 11-year olds for grammar.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? 😉

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.

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9 thoughts on “Semi-colon terrorists

  1. Absolutely wonderful! I love this post. Sent it to two of my writing group friends because your words just spoke to me and I occasionally suggest the use of a semi-colon here and there in writing we are reviewing. (We’ve had talks about the semi-colon just recently.) Just wanted to tell you how much I love this post. You inspire me; today, you’ve moved me to write and share! Thank you!

  2. The semi-colon is a wonderful piece of kit! I love it and use it frequently to avoid curt, choppy sentences, lacking in cadence and rhythm. Semi-colons are useful; those who use terms such as ‘grammar nazi’ and ‘semi-colon terrorist’ are not!

  3. Smiled through your entire post! Yes, of course the semi-colon has its place, just as all punctuation does. Another sin I commit in my writing – I like adjectives – even the ‘ly on occasion. Let’s slay the ‘grammar nazi’ and write with abandon.

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