This house says ‘nooooo!’ Some musings on endangered punctuation…
As they so often say in matters of fundamental importance, there really is no time like the present. No better time than now to take committed, decisive action. And that’s not only because your sense of right and wrong surely demands it, but because (to the best of my knowledge, which is obviously, ahem, extensive) there are only a few still remaining in the wild, and the time will all too soon be upon us when the last surviving member of this critically endangered species will be on a high security reservation somewhere (probably on Madagascar) while a desperate search ensues for a synthetic one for it to breed with.
I refer, of course, to the semi-colon. Which you probably already guessed, didn’t you? What with me being so, like, wordy, and all.
And I do so because last week I stumbled upon an essay, in which, having chosen a number of famous books, the author removed the words, and just displayed the punctuation. Which made for some pretty cool wall art for the literati.
But he then also did a bit of funky analysis to show how different authors not only have different relationships with words, but used punctuation differently too. But what I mostly took from the article was this news just in. That, according to this study, the poor old semi-colon’s days are numbered. So much so that I cannot even give you an example of one here, the semi-colon being a punctuation mark not generally in tune with this magazine’s ‘house style’.
And I fear that this house is not alone, because I am beginning to see much the same everywhere these days – the semi-colon fast becoming the punctuation-fancier’s version of that old quilted jacket you no longer wear, because you’ve realised it makes you look like your granny. Increasingly, the semi-colon (or ‘semicolon’, for those of you who REALLY hate punctuation marks) is the unwanted, dad-dancing, cool-challenged crusty who no longer has a place at the party.
Being a grammar pedant (if one with occasional lapses, because, truly, for all my exams an’ ting, I still couldn’t define a dipthong on the hoof) I care mightily about hanging on to the marks between words, and abhor what the computing age has done to us.
I deplore dodgy writing, even if I do sometimes unwittingly practice it. No person in history, ever, ‘WAS stood at the bus-stop’. They either stood there or were standing there. How many times must I SAY that? But I especially deplore how the written word, as practiced on innumerable modern keyboards, has led to the widespread mismanagement of the comma, which people chuck about the place as if – oh, how to best put this? As if – there you go – it WAS A FULL STOP.
I deplore that, increasingly, people fail to understand narrative layout, despite correct narrative layout being there for all to see. In every frigging novel on every frigging bookshelf! Yet so many persist in ignoring it.
And why? Because as soon as we start writing, the computer says no. As if Jobs/Gates/Berners-Lee were the new holy trinity, and having ‘a gap between paragraphs of the same style’ was set in some crazy-bonkers statute.
I deplore that Twitter has bent what we say out of shape, too. And not because we can’t access spellcheckers (jeez, they bloody stalk us) but because someone told us we can only use 140 characters, and, hey, why would we waste them on boring dots and dashes when we have so much of such great wisdom and importance to say?
You know what, though? Even as I drone – and I fully recognise that I do drone – I am mindful that, for some people, this is of entirely no account. That there will be folks reading this who have no particular standpoint on the deployment of the ellipse or the mid-sentence dash. Who are happy to go with the linguistic flow and accept that language simply evolves.
In fact that’s probably the best way. Remain sanguine that, in not using it, we lose it. C’est la vie.
Except when it’s an apostrophe, of course, when it’s obviously more a case of ‘use it appropriately, damn it, or lose any last vestige of unambiguous comprehension and, as a consequence, pave the way for misunderstandings on a grand and dangerous scale, possibly bringing about the downfall of civilization as we know it, you mark my words!’, and so on.
Or perhaps I should just emigrate to Madagascar.
First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, 20th Feb 2016