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

Friday 04 April 2008 00:00

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

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