The Secret History of the Semi-Colon

Governor Edmund J. Davis was not excessively happy with the results of the 1873 Texas gubernatorial election. He had, after all, lost. The Democratic challenger, Richard Coke, received almost twice as many votes as he had. Desperate to stay in office, the Governor allowed his friends to explore a novel avenue of redress: they would get the election declared illegal by the courts.

The plan went as follows. A man named Joseph Rodriguez had been arrested and accused of voting twice in the election. He was to be represented in court by supporters of Governor Davis, who would reason that Rodriguez couldn’t have broken the law, because the election itself had been conducted unlawfully. The Texan constitution (the argument went) required that polls remain open for four days, but the 1873 election took place on a single day. And what made Rodriguez’s lawyers so sure of their constitutional interpretation? A semicolon.

This divisive piece of punctuation has been around in something like its current form for about 500 years. Its use grew rapidly over the seventeenth century, before peaking around the turn of the 19th century, from which time it has suffered a sad, controversy-flecked decline in popularity.

Over the years, it has been the subject of violent disagreement. And the word “violent” is no mere rhetorical flourish: this thing has human blood on its hands. Well-known and oft-cited examples include a duel in 1837 between two French professors over a colon/semicolon disagreement, and the execution of the New Jersey murderer Salvatorre Merra in 1927 despite his counsel’s claim that a semicolon in the jury’s verdict should have spared his life.

At other times, the fights have been limited to sharp words. The semicolon has been charged, historically, with being the accomplice of snobs and pedants. Kurt Vonnegut, for the prosecution, once derided it as something whose only purpose was to demonstrate that its user “had been to college”. Arguing for the defense, Henry de Montherlant wrote that you could tell a man of judgment by the way he used a semicolon.

So which is it? Useful, elegant way to syntactical clarity, or the tattoo of a sententious show-off? The problem is that the semicolon is the substitute teacher of punctuation: although it can serve in almost every role when the usual candidates aren’t available, it isn’t really purpose-designed for anything. Although the defenders of the semicolon argue passionately for its ability to convey nuance, it can, oftentimes, be replaced with a full stop, a comma, a dash or a full-blown colon without changing much of anything.

This late crisis of confidence in the semicolon’s necessity – given voice by an onslaught of articles, starting in 2008, on the topic – is international. Readers of the French website Rue89 were surprised to read a few years ago that President Nicolas Sarkozy was going to protect the point-virgule by presidential decree. Public documents would, by law, include at least three semicolons, as a form of punctuational affirmative action.

The story was an April Fool’s joke, but it reflected a wider unease about the decline of the French semicolon which (it is argued) stems from the growing influence of a supposedly shorter, punchier English sentence. James Grieve, visiting fellow in French studies at ANU, notes however that the French sentence has less need of a semicolon than the English. Whatever the case, we can at least be thankful that the debate has been confined to the pages of the quality press.

The semicolon in the Texan Constitution, on the other hand, almost led to a shoot-out. The Supreme Court – coincidentally packed with friends of Governor Davis – decided in favour of Rodriguez in January 1874. The constitution decreed that elections “shall be held at the county-seats…until otherwise provided by law; and the polls shall be opened for four days.” The Texan legislature thought this gave them the right to shorten the polling period by law, which they did.

But the Court ruled that the semicolon divided the sentence into two distinct parts, which meant that the bit before the semicolon couldn’t be construed as applying to the bit afterwards. The legislature had no power to shorten the polling period – so the election, and Coke’s victory, were legally void.

There was, obviously, only one reasonable way to resolve the dispute: forcibly. An armed band of Davis supporters took control of the first level of the Capitol building and declared that the incumbent governor was still in charge. Coke supporters, not to be outdone, stormed the building and set up camp on the second floor. The semicolon threatened to provoke a massacre. Fortunately, the President, Ulysses S. Grant, saw sanity and declined Davis’s request for federal assistance. Coke became the new governor and the Semicolon Case (as the history books now know it) was resolved – to everlasting relief – peacefully.

Tom Westland, à la recherche du point-virgule