Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ode to the semi-colon

Who am I to try and halt the clearly unstoppable flow of changing attitudes and practices when it comes to the use of English? I sincerely believe I am not pedantic and I enjoy watching changes in English use and idiom, additions of new words and new ways of using old words. It’s part of a process that has made English such a rich and fertile, interesting and often beautiful language, used the world over.

But there are times when I look at otherwise perfectly ordinary sentences and I wonder why they are so poorly punctuated. Actually, I’m being a bit coy here. I don’t wonder so much as quietly tut under my breath. The reason for these solecisms is clear: that less emphasis is surely placed on teaching the correct use of grammar in schools today than used to be the case. It is quite possible that this, in turn, results from a diminution in numbers of people who study the classics, particularly Latin where grammatical accuracy is paramount in the construction of verbs, tenses, agreements and so forth. 

Grammatical slackness pervades a lot of our communications. Emails are often unpunctuated; sometimes to the extent that you have to read them several times before you are reasonably clear about the message. The worst offender (apart perhaps from the hair-rending annoyance of apostrophes used to signify plurals) is the lack of or the proliferation of commas. Alongside that, in easy order, is the conspicuous absence of semi-colons sometimes balanced precariously by their improper use.

Why are commas and semi-colons important?

Years ago, when conducting an effective writing course, I used an example taken from a report in the Daily Telegraph to illustrate how and why commas are needed. The piece was entitled ‘For the want of a comma’ and is short enough to quote:

“A missing comma in British Rail instructions resulted in the demolition of the waiting room at a Scottish station listed because of its Victorian elegance. Now East Lothian District Council has ordered the waiting room to be rebuilt.

“The waiting room at Drem, near Haddington, was rapidly stripped of its rare fittings, windows, lavatories and roof.

“Then someone took a second look at the instructions from the British Rail management board in London and discovered the mistake.

“The crucial sentence in the board’s list of facilities to be preserved included the words “Drem station bridge”. As a result only the footbridge over the line was earmarked for preservation. Later engineers realised that a comma was missing and the requirement was to retain “Drem Station, bridge…etc.”.

That’s an extreme example of when not to forget to use a comma. Mostly, the appropriate use of commas and semi-colons helps you to understand weight and emphasis; it tells you what part of the sentence refers to what other part – and it conveys the meaning more effectively.

I asked some colleagues whether they were happy with their own use of commas and semi-colons and a common response was that they weren’t quite sure when to use one instead of the other. Just in case it is useful, here’s a simple illustration from part my own effective writing course.

The comma is a punctuation mark used to indicate a slight division between different parts of a sentence and to indicate a small break in the continuity within the sentence. The comma marks a break that is less emphatic than that shown by a full stop or semi-colon. We use commas in the following circumstances:

1. To separate items on a list:
e.g. he packed his socks, shirts, underwear…
But no comma is needed before the final item in the list if a conjunction or a linking word such as ;and’ is used:
e.g he packed his socks, shorts and underwear.

2. Between two clauses when the subjects of the clause are different:
e.g Jack found a bottle, and Jim bought some food.
But if the subject is the same, no comma is needed.
e.g. Jill walked quickly and reached the top of the hill.

3. After a subordinate clause or a participle phrase when it is followed by a main clause:
e.g. when the train arrived, it was ten minutes late. Or, having run all the way to the station, Jim found he had plenty of time.
But if the main clause comes first, no comma is needed:
e.g. the ten o clock was ten minutes late when it arrived.

4. To cut off exclamations, parentheses, etc. from the main sentence:
e.g. Oh, what a pity you didn’t catch him! Naturally, he wanted to see you. He didn’t like, or didn’t seem to like, the film.
But we’re just scratching the surface with these examples. There are so many more of them.
Let’s look briefly at a way of distinguishing between the comma, the semi-colon and the full-stop. Take these three approaches:

He went outside, it was snowing hard. (incorrect)
He went outside. It was snowing hard. (correct)
He went outside; it was snowing hard. (correct)

The most common mistake in modern writing, in my view, can be seen in the first of these examples – i.e. using a comma as a break when actually a semi-colon or full stop is needed to give the right emphasis. Out of the three examples, my preference is for the semi-colon for the simple reason that a stronger break than a comma is needed to demonstrate two activities (going outside/snowing) which are separate but related.  Semi-colons allow you to bring in some subtlety in your sentences. Just banging down commas is anything but subtle by comparison and will blunt your meaning.

Here I am gently lowering myself from the saddle of my hobby horse with apologies to all of you who already know how to use a semi-colon; how it strengthens your style.