Friday, 8 September 2017

A Semicolon Dilemma

 'Of all punctuation marks, the most fascinating as well as perplexing is a seemingly insignificant semicolon because one is never certain as to where to use it and when, ' candidly observed Sir Winston Churchill whose written English was simply impeccable. 

A semicolon is indeed one punctuation mark that amply evaluates a user's mastery over the language. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and Rudyard Kipling were of the opinion that the correct use of a semicolon enriched the written language and proved a writer's sincerity towards the language he or she was using.


Radhakrishnan would often correct Sarojini Naidu's use of a semicolon and also put it where she used a comma in place of a semicolon. Radhakrishnan also corrected the use of punctuation marks and shortened sentences in Nehru's first drafts of 'The Discovery of India' and 'Glimpses of world history'. Nehru was always in a dilemma regarding the use of a semicolon. He rather rampantly used semicolons in his original drafts, which were done away with Radhakrishnan. 

Gandhiji was very disciplined about semicolons but admitted that he would often make a mistake when it came to putting this baffling punctuation mark. He once jokingly told Emerson, the Home Secretary, 'Mr Emerson, please put semicolons from your end, where they are required.' Emerson wrote back, 'Mr Gandhi, please you also do the same where I missed to put a semicolon!' Though poetry often dispenses with all punctuation marks, interestingly, poets have retained semicolons as the sole punctuation mark!!




Look at the quintessential example from the Irish poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats' brief verse: 'But I being poor have only my dreams.........I've spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly for you tread on my dreams.....'

Or Robert Browning's ' I give the fight up........Let there be an end.......a privacy, an obscure nook for me; I want to be forgotten even by god.'

Or, Rudyard Kipling's ' Fern above the saddle bow, flex upon the plain; take the flower and turn the hour, and kiss my love again.'



Here, I must add that the Russian poets and novelists have been very meticulous in the use of semicolons, especially Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, among others. 


'Semicolons are like a nagging wife's tantrums; irritating to the core and uncertain when to appear.' An unknown grammarian's comment on semicolons was seconded by Sir David Crystal, world's foremost linguist and grammarian. He added, ' I avoid semicolons because I don't want to sound semi-sure about anything; a comma is, therefore, more preferable than a dithering semicolon....'

Remember, a semi-colon is like a secret beloved; often unseen (in public and in a copy).


But who cares for a semi-colon nowadays? In this age of grammar free language/s and punctuation-depleted copies, who has time for the nuances like semicolons and commas? Those who use them are anachronisms in this age and people look at them as relics from the past. Ask a youngster or a college-goer, whether he/she ever used a semicolon while writing something, they'll look at you in a way as if they are seeing Steven Spielberg's ET! Alack, we are living in linguistically impoverished times and climes.

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