Literacy Declines; The Semicolon Trembles

We were amused by this Guardian article about the uproar over the decline of semicolon use in French; we have been similarly amused by the many recent elegies for the semicolon in English; we believe, however, that rumors of this particular death have been grossly exaggerated. People aren’t worried about the point-virgule per se; what they fear is the decline of written literacy in the digital age, of which the disappearance of sophisticated punctuation is taken to be a symptom. It’s true that, Hemingwayesque style effects aside, the semicolon is indispensable to the construction of complex sentences; it’s true that if it ever really were to vanish, the passages it left in its wake would be either boringly staccato or appallingly ungrammatical (or both). Yet as an editor, I see at least as many writers who are inclined to overuse the semicolon as to eschew it; I myself am one of those writers, to the extent that, so long as I’m alive, I can assure the world that semicolon usage will never fall completely into desuetude. If Philippe Djian, the author quoted by The Guardian as saying that he wants history to remember him as “the exterminating angel of the point-virgule” (only the French could raise grammatical pedantry to the level of the biblical), wants a battle to the death, so be it; he will have my sentences to contend with; he will have to pry out their semicolons one by one, like so many nails across which the festoons of my glorious clauses are strung.

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