July’s blockbuster: ‘The curse of the overlarge semicolon’
George Orwell thought semicolons were unnecessary. Kurt Vonnegut loathed them. The first rule of creative writing , he said, was ‘Do not use semicolons’.
These two authors appear in Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation written by David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales.
Crystal doesn’t share this antipathy. He says a semicolon ‘offers a unique semantic option conveying a closer relationship than is expressed by the period.’ In other words ‘the writer is telling the reader: I want you to see that these thoughts relate to each other’.
But when you explain their use like that it’s easy to see how semicolons can be misused, he warns. If the related thoughts number more than two, three at most, then sentences become incomprehensible. To illustrate his point, Crystal quotes a long sentence by William Hazlitt, the essayist, with six semicolons.
The semicolon, Crystal reiterates, is ‘to convey a semantic relationship’ and using it, or not, ‘should be governed by a sensitive appreciation of its role in relation to the discourse as a whole’.
Crystal has nothing to say about the ‘height, depth and orientation’ of the semi-colon in handwritten texts. Yet these considerations were crucial for markers of the Key Stage 2 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) test this year.
Pupils were asked to insert a semicolon correctly in the sentence ‘Come and see me tomorrow I will not have time to see you today.’
Never mind there are other possibilities: inserting ‘because’ between ‘tomorrow’ and ‘I’, for example. This would have the advantage of lessening the sentence’s bossy tone. But the pupils have no choice. They must use a semicolon.
How would my 11-year-old self have inserted a semicolon into an unpunctuated sentence? I would have written it large so the examiner could see it clearly. I may even have gone over it several times until it was many shades darker than surrounding words.
But I would have received no mark. That’s because the marking scheme says ‘Neither element of the semi-colon should start higher than the letter I.’
The marking scheme doesn’t stop here. The ‘key marking points’ include the placing of the dot of the semi-colon, the orientation of the comma and whether the separation between dot and comma is excessive. Note I said ‘include’. There is more. Much more.
The point of the SPAG test is to discover whether pupils know how to use punctuation marks correctly. But this can best be done by assessing pupils’ actual writing. Checking whether pupils can write imaginatively, with flair, using the appropriate register for the context and punctuating the writing suitably is assessed more accurately by setting a writing task. This is far better than asking pupils to insert a pre-determined punctuation mark in a stand-alone sentence out of context.
One teacher, quoted in the Guardian, described the SPAG marking as ‘beyond parody’. Yet pupils and their schools are being judged on this garbage. It’s time for these tests to be trashed.
This is a companion piece to 'Pass the Inkwell' by Emma Bishton.