It is a debate you could only really have in a country that accords its intellectuals the kind of status other nations – to name no names – tend to reserve for footballers, footballers’ wives or (if they’re lucky) rock stars; a place where structuralists and relativists and postmodernists, rather than skulk shamefacedly in the shadows, get invited on to primetime TV; a culture in which even today it is considered entirely acceptable, indeed laudable, to state one’s profession as “thinker”.
That country is France, which is currently preoccupied with the fate of its ailing semicolon.
In the red corner, desiring nothing less than the consignment of the semicolon to the dustbin of grammatical history, are a pair of treacherous French writers and (of course) those perfidious Anglo-Saxons, for whose short, punchy, uncomplicated sentences, it is widely rumoured, the rare subtlety and infinite elegance of a good semicolon are surplus to requirements. The point-virgule, says legendary writer, cartoonist and satirist François Cavanna, is merely “a parasite, a timid, fainthearted, insipid thing, denoting merely uncertainty, a lack of audacity, a fuzziness of thought”.
Philippe Djian, best known outside France as the author of 37°2 le matin, which was brought to the cinema in 1986 by Jean-Jacques Beneix as Betty Blue and successfully launched Beatrice Dalle on an unsuspecting world, goes one step further: he would like nothing better than to go down in posterity, he claims, as “the exterminating angel of the point-virgule”. Objectionable English-language typesetting practices, as used by most of the world’s computers, are also to blame for the semicolon’s decline, its defenders argue.
In the blue corner are an array of linguistic patriots who cite Hugo, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Proust and Voltaire as examples of illustrious French writers whose respective oeuvres would be but pale shadows of themselves without the essential point-virgule, and who argue that – in the words of one contributor to a splendidly passionate blog on the topic hosted recently by the leftwing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur – “the beauty of the semicolon, and its glory, lies in the support lent by this particular punctuation mark to the expression of a complex thought”.
The semicolon, continues this sadly anonymous defender of the Gallic grammatical faith, “finds its rightful home in the subtlety of a fine and rich analysis, one which is not afraid to pronounce – and sometimes to withhold – judgment where mere affirmation might be found wanting. It allows the writer to link ideas without breaking a train of thought; by contrast, over-simplified communication and bald, efficient discourse whose simplistic style is the best guarantee of being widely understood is naturally wary of this punctuation mark.”
“You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”
~ George Bernard Shaw to T.E. Lawrence
How, though, are you supposed to use the thing? According to the eminently readable rules of French grammar, the semicolon has several specific applications. First, it allows a writer to introduce a logical balance into a long phrase. Second, it can serve to divide two phrases that are in themselves independent, but whose significance is in some way linked (viz: “The semicolon is necessary; I have just proved it,” or, as Michel Houellebecq, one of the very few contemporary French writers to use the point-virgule, would have it: “He was unable to remember his last erection; he was waiting for the storm.”) It can also, more prosaically, be used to separate the various elements of an enumeration or list (or indeed to separate groups of similar elements linked by commas within a longer list). Finally, a semicolon can replace a comma when “the use of the latter might prove confusing”.
For Sylvie Prioul, a subeditor at the Nouvel Obs and author of La Ponctuation ou l’art d’accommoder les textes, the gradual disappearance of the ; is, above all, a natural consequence of France’s regrettable recent tendency, under the nefarious influence of ever-encroaching English, to reduce the length of its sentences.
“People just don’t know how to use it any more. It’s a strange mix between a comma and a full stop. Sometimes it’s closer to the comma; that’s what we used to call the ‘strong comma’ in the 18th century. Sometimes it’s closer to a full stop; we use it when we change idea.”
Michel Volkovitch, author, poet and translator, is another ardent defender. “The point-virgule is precious when the subject matter is complex,” he says. “For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections – in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it’s precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark.”
Excerpted from Jon Henley at The Guardian