I love punctuation (and it loves me) and so it is with some distress that I read the latest news of the looming, inevitable extinction of the semicolon.
Researchers at Lancaster University in the UK have just announced that semicolon use is becoming rarer in British writing, falling in use by 25 per cent in the last 30 years.
Previous research published in 2017 showed that semicolon use in published writings in English of all kinds dropped by about 70 per cent from 1800 to 2000. The semicolon has long since vanished from almost all journalism and it won't surprise if the semicolons you are about to come across (wondering what on earth they are!) in this little piece of mine will be the only ones anywhere in the vast expanse of the newspaper in which you are reading this.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most famous of the semicolon's many influential enemies and famously scoffed of them that "All they do is show you've been to college."
Do I only love semicolons because I am a prig and did Literature at college and so am familiar with great writers (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville) whose works are semicolon-rich?
Yes, perhaps; and yet I like the shy explanation of enthusiasm for semicolons just offered by Will Lloyd in the same online piece The Melancholy Decline Of The Semicolon in which he reports the aforementioned Lancaster University finding.
"When the semicolon first appeared in the work of the Renaissance scholar and printer Aldus Pius Manutius, in a book describing a climb to the summit of Mount Etna, it was a hybrid between a comma and a colon. Its function was to prolong a pause ..."
"Nothing has changed; semicolons are exactly what Manutius invented them to be in 1494. Their decline in fiction, and the suspicion that surrounds their use in everyday communication, tells us a story about the times we live in.
MORE IAN WARDEN:
"Lancaster's linguists believe that the end of the semicolon, along with shrinking sentence lengths in novels, is a reflection of a society addicted to social media. The semicolon is an element of language that communicates stops, pauses, reflections, and cigarette breaks within a sentence. [But] the digital world churns; Twitter is not an arena known for reflection.
"To read back those writers who put the semicolon to best use, like Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf, is to enter a world where time is abundant. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the semicolon as 'indicating a pause ... more pronounced than that indicated by a comma'. The pronounced pause is where the real beauty of a semicolon lies. You can feel it in one of Virginia Woolf's greatest sentences, as she describes Clarissa Dalloway hearing Big Ben: 'First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.'
"Put a dash where the semicolon is there and a whole moment in time and feeling would evaporate. The loss of such moments is what the end of the semicolon signals."
Yes, one does not necessarily need to be a snotty, elitist superprig to love semicolons; only to be someone who loves, when reading olde fiction, to be immersed in a world where time is abundant.
The needle on my pettinessometer (it measures cheap opportunistic pettiness in utterances made by those in public life) did some frenzied flickering last week as Canberra Liberal MLA Nicole Lawder tried to make political use of the current zany heights of Canberra's grasses.
On Thursday morning and on ABC radio news she was to be heard trilling Liberally against the ACT government's wilful failure to mow Canberra's public grass. This negligence, she seethed, is making our normally tidy town unsightly, making the unkempt grasses a haven for venomous snakes, man-eating tigers, etc.
But of course those of us with no party political axe to grind point out that these months of weirdly monsoonal rains have sent all ACT greenery of all kinds into a growing frenzy. To try to blame the ACT government for not being able to keep up with this frenzy is to try to blame the government for the weather. The ACT's news mediums should be ashamed of thinking this opportunistic drivel deserving of reporting.
Unless, that is, the point of reporting it is to show sympathy with what a poignantly wretched, unfulfilling thing it is to be a politician in opposition, especially in so bland and uneventful a jurisdiction as the ACT where there is so little of substance for an opposition to feign indignation over.
"[Parliamentary] opposition is hell" a federal politician once famously sighed to journalists in a rare moment of candour and, yes, it must be torturously awful. The dashed dreams! The thwarted ambitions! Those of us lucky enough to do socially useful, fulfilling work that doesn't ever require shameful, soul-shrivelling fakery from us, should spare a kind thought for those (including party politicians) who cannot share our good fortune.
Meanwhile I am loving the current wildness of Canberra's grassy places. My dog and I love to gambol through it, plonk down in it and roll around in it together. We never see a snake but if one does bite us it won't occur to me to blame the government for it and to vote Liberal next time.
And, as Voss and I play in grass as high as a Heffalump's eye I choose to believe that the happy abandoned play of man and beast is surely what God, who upholstered the Garden of Eden in this softly luxurious, unmowed way, intended grass for.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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