Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Your questions answered: Punctuation Corner

ELSEWHERE ASKS: Question: comma or semi-colon? I've managed to reduce my use of the semi-colon greatly over the years (esp since leaving academia) but now rather wonder if this was a rather unnecessary manoeuvre. And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups? (Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before'). Many would write the following (esp in a powerpoint display): ‘Question; colon or semi-colon?’

PC says: I’ll take this one. Punctuation is an issue for our own times as fashions in it have changed a lot and there is no knowing (short of going and looking at the manuscripts, which I don’t have the time, money or inclination to do) what the original Brontë punctuation was like.

To answer Elsewhere’s question one part at a time:

Question: comma or semi-colon?

Depends. (Also, did you actually mean to write ‘colon’ here rather than ‘comma’? The latter is a good question too, though.)

My understanding is that a semi-colon means something quite specific. The separate parts of the sentence on both sides of a semi-colon ought each to be able to stand alone as complete grammatical sentences with a subject and an active verb: ‘The cat sat in front of the fire; the dog lay on the sofa.’ (A comma would be wrong here – the curious could look up the term ‘comma splice’ to find out why.)

But the question I would have asked is ‘semi-colon or full stop?’, which is more often the choice to be made. A semi-colon (again, as I understand it) is used to signal that two separate points being made are sufficiently connected that they can be seen as two parts of a single train of thought, and to encourage the reader to think of them as such; the connection is demonstrated by making them two parts of a single sentence and joining them with a semi-colon, as I just did back there.

As for a colon: what it ‘says’ is ‘I am about to deliver, in the second part of this sentence, on the promise made or implied in the first part.’ As I just did back there.

The colon and the semi-colon are not acceptable substitutes for each other. Each has its place.

And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups?

Calling someone else a pedant is code for “I don’t care if I got this wrong, and everybody knows it doesn’t matter about grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that boring crap as long as you Be Creative. Also, I don’t know what ‘pedant’ means or I wouldn’t be using it in this situation.”

The correct response is “Do you want to write this properly or not? It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t, but if you don’t want to know the right answer, don’t waste my time asking me to help.”

Of course, in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism, when education is a product for sale and the client is always right, such a riposte will get you sacked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before')?

You say “Yes, and it was wrong then, too.” This is closely related the cry of the exasperated parent: ‘Oh I see, and if Backchatte McNaughtygirl rode her bike over the edge of a cliff I suppose you would too!’

SAJINSA ASKS: Could I ask you for your assistance with grammar? Should it be: She walked away. To never return, I wonder? Or, should it be: She walked away. To never return? I wonder.

This is actually more of a punctuation question than a grammar question, though the two are of course connected. I do however congratulate you on your correct use of the colon (though the comma after 'Or' is superfluous).

The first option is wrong, because you should only put question marks at the end of direct questions, and ‘I wonder’ is not a direct question.

In both options you have split an infinitive (‘to never return’), which, while repressively tolerated by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, doesn’t inspire confidence in the writer’s language skills, and is in any case a cliché.

Also in both options, the change of tense from past (‘walked’) to present (‘wonder’) looks odd to me, though the latter may be intended as the continuous present, ie ‘I wondered then and am still wondering now and will no doubt go on wondering’.

When you can’t decide between two versions of something, it’s usually because both of them are unsatisfactory if not downright incorrect, and a complete re-think of the passage in question is in order. So how about ‘She walked away, and I wondered if she would ever return.’

D. TILEY, ESQ. ASKS: We all get very purse-lipped about the misused apostrophe, and sometimes chew the edges of our laminex desks in a fury. But, actually, is there any need for the rotten beasts? Since some of us have learnt to do that funy riting wiv fonez, surely we can adapt to the loss of the apostrophe without the calamitous collapse of meaning?

I love apostrophes and the precise subtleties (not to mention the subtle precision) of meaning that they create, but I think the sum total of the world’s pain (the pain both of the apostrophically challenged and of their desk-chewing critics) might be lessened by a tiny fraction if we were to dispense with them, yes.

But I would really miss the ‘daily specials’ signs outside fruit and veg shops and butchers’ shops that look like this (NB -- all bona fide examples):




  1. I love the semi-colon: so clearly right or wrong, unlike the comma where there are so many instances where you can argue personal preference, or some other grey area. Howevs, you didn't add to your ponderations the issue of the co-ordinating conjunction vs the semi-colon, which is a question I like to bring up in stylistics classes when I feel nitpicky.

  2. There's a terrible ad on the side of buses at the moment. Advertising some kind of GPS navigational device, it suggests that if we buy the NavMan we can Keep Up With the Jones'.


  3. Dear Sisters,

    Is there something PC knows that she is not telling us? I refer to her comment: 'in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism'. Pre-apocalyptic? Should I start stocking up on baked beans and bottles of water, to say nothing of several hundred novels to read while starving, and/or fighting of the hungry hordes?


  4. What do the sisters think about starting a sentence with 'but'? I'm referring to everyday writing, not the realm of fiction. Someone pulled me up on it the other day, which i thought was rather strange.

  5. Which is correct:

    So, then, what is your full name?
    So then, what is your full name?
    So then what is your full name?