It’s hard to believe that a book about punctuation became a bestseller, but that is exactly what happened with Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.
Truss advocated a ‘zero-tolerance- approach’ to sloppy punctuation, but how important is it? Well, even the first page resonated with me. Yes, I do gasp with horror and grow cross when I see stray apostrophes (you know the DVD’s, CD’s type). As Truss writes: For any true stickler…the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of a bereavement, though greatly accelerated.
She’s not wrong. Commas also get her goat, and mine. The biggie, however, is perhaps the semi-colon. The American writer, Donald Barthelme apparently wrote that the semi-colon is “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly”. That is pretty ugly, though not nearly as ugly as removing it, and therein lies a tale (tail?)…
Truss notes that, according to critics, semi-colons are old-fashioned, middle-class and optional. Additionally, they are mysteriously connected to pausing, are dangerously addictive and too complex. Yet, a well-placed semi-colon can make a punctuation nerd swoon. It is easier to fall in love with someone who knows how to appropriately use a semi-colon.
Semi-colon or colon?
There’s a rather lovely distinction between the semi-colon – ; and the colon – :
…while the semi-colon lightly propels you in any direction related to the foregoing, the colon nudges you along lines already subtly laid down.
There follows a joke about semi-colonic irrigation…let’s not go there…
G. B. Shaw said that when the second statement reaffirms, explains or illustrates the first, you use a colon.
So…I loved Opal Fruits as a child:no one else did suggests Truss. Or Man proposes:God disposes
Colons are rather good for lists, e.g,, I did not like certain qualities exhibited by Mary Anne: haughtiness, superciliousness, arrogance and pride.
So, where would you use a semi-colon? Easy. Between two related sentences where there is no and or but
Truss suggests I loved Opal Fruits; they are now called Starburst, of course.
The semi-colon is called a compliment to the reader. No need to spell it out for an intelligent being. Someone I once knew reckoned that: “to be corrected means I am being understood”. Quite possibly, but it makes it no less annoying, especially if you are reading a published book (self-publishing authors, please take note).
Punctuation is important and we should fight for it, even at risk of being called ‘sad’ and told to ‘get a life’.
Bear in mind that a comma can be a case of life and death. Sir Roger Casement was an Irish nationalist activist. You can read what happened here. The stakes are not usually quite so high but when pandas stop eating shoots and leaves and start eating, shooting and leaving, to abuse Truss’s phrase, then meaning changes beyond all recognition.