Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Brief Descent Into Semi-Colon Hell

A visit from news royalty this morning: a comment from the sorely missed Tim Marshall. My sister (a real news junkie) gasped when I told her, however, his visit also puts a slight shot across my bow given what I'd already written for today.

I was going to point you in the direction of a couple of interesting reads over at his new website, The What and The Why, but I was also going to drop a warning about the second piece by a guest writer talking about Saudi Arabia. I was going to warn you to push on past the opening paragraph. It's a fascinating article but begins in semi-colon hell:
While pressure was building around the situation with Putin and Ukraine; the possibility of Grexit was on the cards – creating a possible pincer on Turkey between IS and Russian influence; world leaders and country representatives headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the new King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

The reason I noted this was last night I was asked to proof-read a letter a friend had written for a job promotion. They'd used a semi-colon where they should have used a colon. I pointed this out and they questioned if I was right. I was naturally a bit affronted. A published writer, blogging for ten years, millions of words under my belt and with a PhD in English Literature and I was being asked if I knew how to use a colon! What was worse: I immediately started to panic. Did I really know how to use a colon? I had to go on the internet to check.

As it happened, I did know how to use a colon but the whole drama reaffirmed my own writing paranoia, which was brought into focus when I started to read the Saudi Arabia article last night. I just couldn't get past that opening.

Now, despite how this sounds, I'm not a pedant about the rules of writing. I don't really know the rules that well. I've always been more of a gut instinct writer. I've always encourage people to write from their gut and to ignore the rules they were taught at school. Our schooldays make bad writers of us all. They introduce things we never need such as the semi-colon. My mantra is: write how you speak but then edit how you read.

I have a love-hate relationship with the semi-colon and realise that admitting this is an odd thing to confess. Whatever next? A slight entanglement with an asterisk? A romantic weekend with flirty ampersand? The fact is: I adore a well-placed semi-colon but I tend not to use them myself. They're the harbinger of worse things. They're a form of gateway punctuation. You begin by occasionally dropping a semi-colon at a middle-class dinner party but then you find yourself using them every weekend just to cheer yourself up. Before you know it, you're a punctuation junkie scoring apostrophes and em dashes from dealers in some rat infested hovel in the backstreets of Manchester.

Semi-colons are the most pretentious form of punctuation. They're the most elegant when used correctly but abject expressions of self-importance when flaunted where they don't belong. You'd rarely (if ever) find a writer such as Hemingway use a semi-colon. They are not the stuff of his brusque prose. In fact, I'd offer a my hunch that 'better' writers rarely use them at all or those that do have a style which is distinguished by its sheer refinement. Whenever I've taught English to students, my first advice was always to learn to use the comma correctly. Commas can rarely be overused (though, of course, there are, exceptions). It can take years to learn to correctly use the comma and, even then, there's rarely a need to go further and adopt the semi-colon. Writers with a real ear for the flow of language can sense where pauses naturally occur in a line. The comma is really all they need and even then used sparingly. A master of writing, Kurt Vonnegut, once gave this wise piece of advice:
'Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.'

Not using the semi-colon is really the best advice since it is often misused simply because people don't quite know how to use it. There are pedants who will give you the strict definition of when and how to use one, though I don't take the pedant's line. The way I think about semi-colons is that they simply introduce a pause to your flow; a break in the narrative slightly longer than a comma but not as absolute as a full stop. Perhaps I've just misused one there and this too would reveal something significant about my character. I don't consciously use semi-colons myself and when I do I always get into a knot of self-loathing.

But back to the offending paragraph. It wasn't written by Tim Marshall but by a reader who also happens to be a solicitor. I began to wonder if that's significant. Solicitors live in a world of language yet they're not trained in language. Solicitors are often the abusers of language. They treat words like station masters racking up train carriages in a yard; locking clauses together with the iron link of the semi-colon. The offending prose is overwritten, destroyed by the misuse of the semi-colon. It's not a trivial misuse. What the writer only really needed was the simple comma. So why didn't he do that? Because semi-colons convey a message. It's like wearing an old school tie or a pin stripe suit. The semi-colon is saying much more than simply 'take a breath'. You can read a lot about a person's character by their use of the semi-colon. It's telling us that the writer is educated and believes in their education. They believes in their status. It is all posture. Horrible. Brutal. Plain bad writing. It's also a real shame. The article is an interesting insight into something you rarely read about. Just skip the opening paragraph and bite you lip whenever you see a semi-colon.

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