Archives for 4 January 2013

On semicolons

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.

—Kurt Vonnegut

Let’s take this bit by bit:

Here is a lesson in creative writing.

Asserted but not proved.

First rule: Do not use semicolons.

Nobody but Vonnegut ever heard of this ‘rule’, and most notable English authors of the last few centuries have used semicolons freely. I conclude therefore that it is not a rule, but merely an expression of Vonnegut’s wishful thinking. It is true that George Orwell wrote Coming Up For Air without using semicolons, as an experiment; but he went straight back to using semicolons in all his subsequent books. I should say that counted as evidence that it is not a rule.

They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.

On the contrary, they represent the same thing as the Greek hypostigme, which was invented over 2,000 years ago. In marking up texts for public reading, as an aide-memoire to the readers, they used to put dots in between words to indicate places where one should pause. There were three of these marks originally:

The stigme teleia or ‘final dot’ served the same function as our full stop, but it was even with the tops of the letters instead of the baseline. In reading aloud, it indicated a relatively long pause.

The stigme mese or ‘middle dot’ was halfway up the line, about where we would put a hyphen, and represented a place where you could pause long enough to take a breath; it corresponded roughly to our comma.

The hypostigme or ‘under-dot’ represented a middle-sized pause, longer than a stigme mese but shorter than a stigme teleia, to show that the reader should pause while the audience took in the meaning of the preceding clause, but that the sentence was not yet over.

Note that these marks were invented long before the question mark, colon, or exclamation mark, which presumably Vonnegut thinks are important enough to keep. If the Greeks found a need for all three, and modern punctuation includes all three, I think it’s safe to say that there really is a function for all three.

All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Pish-tosh. I began using semicolons when I was about ten, and never encountered anybody in college who said anything about them one way or the other.

‘The Fantastic Imagination’, by George MacDonald

From A Dish of Orts: Chiefly papers on the imagination, and on Shakespere (Enlarged edition), 1895.


That we have in English no word corresponding to the German Mährchen, drives us to use the word Fairytale, regardless of the fact that the tale may have nothing to do with any sort of fairy. The old use of the word Fairy, by Spenser at least, might, however, well be adduced, were justification or excuse necessary where need must.

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.

Many a man, however, who would not attempt to define a man, might venture to say something as to what a man ought to be: even so much I will not in this place venture with regard to the fairytale, for my long past work in that kind might but poorly instance or illustrate my now more matured judgment. I will but say some things helpful to the reading, in right-minded fashion, of such fairytales as I would wish to write, or care to read. [Read more…]