The rise, decline and fall of the semicolon

Paul Collins has an interesting piece in Slate tracing the history of the use of semicolons and how telegraphy killed it:

The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.

Back then, the semicolon wasn’t for interrogation or relating clauses; punctuation was still largely taught around oratorical pauses.

Poe’s 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the “Victorian Internet.” And that’s precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price—trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word—meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that “Boys and girls … should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon.”

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.”

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it’s tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student’s first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

A nice piece; take a look!

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