Punctuation: does it matter?

In France, they complain that English writing style has killed the semi-colon; it’s too direct, they say. Two writers join a debate that has brought grammarians to a full stop

Yes, it does, says Philip Hensher

Both sides in the punctuation debate have an irritating tendency to miss the point.

Libertarians, who believe there is no point in instructing anyone in its uses, fail to acknowledge that there are certainly wrong ways to use any mark of punctuation.

Sticklers, who believe that there are simple right and wrong ways to apply these things, fail to acknowledge that many marks of punctuation don't have a single correct usage, and that different good writers find ways of exploiting the potential effects of, for instance, a colon or a dash.

Of the two, the libertarian is the more deplorable and irresponsible figure. No writer ever came to his own individual and effective usage of a piece of punctuation by being deprived of an explanation of how it is customarily used, and how it has, in the past, been used. To say that there are wrong usages is not incompatible with the understanding that there is also a range of right usages. An imposition of the libertarian model will only lead to confusion, or the disappearance of useful and sensitive markers.

The semi-colon, the supposed demise of which is provoking dismay across the Channel, is a perfect illustration of this. To many writers a cherished tool, elegant and rational, the point virgule has been defined in ways which seem altogether unproblematic: as an intermediate mark between the comma and the full stop, intervening between two grammatically complete statements closely connected in sense.

As a linguistic aid it presents opportunities to display refinement which go well beyond the fulfilment of a mere rule, and when French commentators express regret over its decline they are suggesting that expressive and elegant usage is being eroded.

In English, there are not such tightly formed rules about the use of punctuation as there are in most European languages. A writer who uses the semi-colon well and expressively singles himself out as a skilful and accomplished craftsman. Some achieve their most rapturous effects on its back; the sublimely rippling last sentence of Nabokov's Ada couldn't be done by any other means.

Martin Amis, it is said, used the semi-colon only once in Money, a fact which tends to astonish writers more than it does readers. It seems like an extraordinary act of self-denial. The point of the denial must be, surely, that the semi-colon was completely inappropriate to his boorish and crass narrator; and, that however sophisticated his vocabulary and verbal dexterity, that boorishness could be signalled by withholding the most refined of a writer's tools. The appearance of the unique semi-colon indicates, surely, the beginning of John Self's maturity and education.

Certainly, the semi-colon often acts as an indication of order and control. It often surfaces in those epigrams summing up a novel's action and meaning which novelists sometimes like to begin with – the first sentence of Anna Karenina, or of V S Naipaul's A Bend in the River. It often signals a degree of irony – how appropriate, in the age of emoticons, that the semi-colon has been co-opted into the representation of a wink, thus ;-)

More spectacularly, it can give material of a demented wildness the appearance of control and propriety. There is nothing more extravagant than the famous first sentence of Kleist's The Marquise of O, in which the heroine places an advertisement in the newspaper, trying to discover who the man may be by whom she finds herself pregnant; but the run of semi-colons give it a disconcerting grace and decency.

Whatever the French may fear, it is hard to imagine the semi-colon disappearing from expressive writing. Without it, prose will be monotonously punchy or too garrulous; will stop and start like a circus engine; will deprive itself of the lovely musical possibilities of suspension and floating; will lose a crucial flavour of the tentative and the cogitative. Perhaps we don't live in a tentative world any more; but, for those of us who like to acknowledge a thoughtful pause in a sentence, punctuation will always matter.

Philip Hensher is an Independent columnist and author. The Northern Clemency, his new novel, is published this week by 4th Estate

No, it doesn’t, says Bethan Marshall

Punctuation. Do we need it and what difference does it make to our ability to understand what people say? Well, judging by the first sentence that I wrote (and, indeed, this one) I would have to say – it depends. Punctuation is just one word, and a noun at that, and has no business forming a complete sentence, which is of course what I did.

But I have many more notable compatriots in my use of single-word sentences. Dickens for starters. And there I go again, a sentence without a verb – twice within one paragraph – as well as the use of "and" and "but" to begin two of them.

Dickens famously started his novel Bleak House with the sentence "London. Michaelmas term lately over and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall." The second paragraph begins "Fog everywhere" and carries on with numerous present participles and no auxiliary verb. So we have "Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs" and "fog cruelly pinching the fingers and toes of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck" but not one "is" or "was" amongst them. And it doesn't matter. In fact it makes the opening passage all the more powerful. Fog sits around the Lord Chancellor and entraps, both metaphorically and literally, many of the main characters in the novel. What better way to start than with that: "Implacable November weather."

Ah, I hear you say, Dickens knew the rules and was deliberately subverting them. This may be right but it also shows that the rules which govern our punctuation are not so hard and fast. In a research document written by the Qualification Curriculum and Assessment authority, called Grammar for Writing, the organisation discovered that the best candidates probably used more one-word sentences than anyone else. QCA looked at how one could improve from being an F-grade candidate to a C and a C-grade candidate to an A.

F-grade candidates wrote long sentences joined by connectives, what we use to call "a trip on the 207 bus", so called because pupils would write sentences like "We got on the 207 bus and Ranjit sat in front and then Cherry got on and we talked until west Ealing" and so on. The punctuation is correct but uninspiring. To overcome this problem pupils are taught clauses. So you might get a sentence like: "We all got on the 207 bus, which was going to Ealing." This, provided you sustained the use of clauses, should get you a grade C. But to get a grade A you had to break the rules and write verbless sentences.

The author of the report had to acknowledge that this was something to do with the reader-writer relationship and had nothing to do with accurate punctuation at all. To write well you had, almost, to hear how the reader would respond. You would have to, perhaps literally, say the words out loud and see if they sounded OK. You would have to imagine if the picture you had conjured in your head would translate into another person to see if the image would resonate.

And this has much more to do with how punctuation was originally conceived than a book of rules that can never change.

One of the main sources of punctuation was as lines for actors reading aloud. Many children punctuate in this manner. They hear a sentence and then put in commas for a short pause and full stops for a long one and if it's in between they might put a semi-colon. I punctuate that way largely myself.

I know you have to put commas around clauses and that a colon goes at the beginning of a list but I get bored putting marks everywhere I think they should go. My word processor screams green every time it thinks I need a comma but sometimes it's wrong and at others I think – why bother. And – apologies to the elite of French writers battling to save its perilous existence – don't even get me started on the semi-colon. (Although if it allows us to breathe a little more easily mid-sentence then why shouldn't it?) It's easy to get hung up on the niceties and scorn at errors in a letter, but punctuation changes. It's the meaning that matters. Right?



Dr Bethan Marshall is a senior lecturer in English Education at King's College London

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
News
i100
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Systems Developer Technical Lead

£65000 - £70000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Energy Engineer

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...

Techincal Accountant-Insurance-Bank-£550/day

£475 - £550 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Technical Accountant-Insuran...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment