David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Phenomenology of Punctuation

Raoul Hausmann, Phonetic Poem (1918)

Hello everyone and happy new years. While travelling in the last few weeks I had a conversation with the ever-acute Juliet Clark, who told me about the latest trends in editing. One piece of news is that semicolons between independent clauses are very out of fashion, even more than colons.

I was surprised, because I’ve always thought the colon was a more finicky piece of punctuation, but its more particular usage case probably has kept a place for it while the semicolon has come to seem more superfluous and easily replaced with a period. That I feel that my semicolons should not be replaced with periods (not usually, anyway) doesn’t have much bearing on the semicolon’s popularity.

I use semicolons frequently enough that they’ve taken on a particular feel for me that is at most vaguely approximated inside anyone else’s head. Even when I’m not using them, uniformity of sentence rhythm can bother me; I’ll change up sentence structure and adopt more ornate phrasing to get the feel of a semicolon’s half-pause without actually using the character itself. So for me the semicolon also has the regulative function of releasing the accumulated pressure of the monotony of seemingly repetitious sentence patterns.

(Starting sentences with conjunctions also shifts the pacing, though I never do so for the clause right after a semicolon; wouldn’t this clause seem strange starting with an “and,” stranger than if I’d used a period instead of a semicolon just now? Conjunctions need to be capitalized to look right to me when they start independent clauses.)

Reading too much of the flat, staccato American fiction of the 1980s and 1990s caused me to cling desperately to a more flowing and/or baroque style when I was growing up. It wasn’t just limited to Raymond Carver and his kin, though. I had similar negative reactions to Iris Murdoch’s prose, which seems to stick far too often to a thudding subject-verb-object windshield wiper rhythm that sets my teeth on edge. For contrast, German strictly mandate placement of parts of speech in such a way as to frequently yield free-form chaos on a word by word level, making such monotony rarer.

The vagaries of these perceptions of the flow and rhythm of punctuation are more particular than I could fully document. At least in the case of the Oxford comma, everyone knows that there’s no agreement as to how sentences with or without it should feel. But there seems to be the tacit agreement that usage of most punctuation has the same effect on speakers of the same language (well, within the same socio-economic class and dialect and geographical background and so on, but you see my point).

Which leads to the next, greater problem. Even the colon is out of fashion these days, frequently replaced by the em dash—at least when the colon’s not being given its strictest usage preceding a list or similar. And the allure of the em dash is a headache for me, because somewhere along the line I was taught that it was wrong to use an em dash just to provide a break in a sentence—like this, just now. I learned that the only proper use—and this is not a rule in Strunk and White, so it must have been a particularly insistent teacher somewhere along the line—was as a substitute for parentheses. Whichever Ancient Mariner taught me that rule was really irresponsible. Em dashes were suitable—no, required!—when using parentheses to offset an embedded clause would wrongly subordinate the clause. Parentheses were suitable for sotto voce asides or digressions, but not for crucial interjections. But I ceased to use the single, lonely em dash.

Unfortunately, the persistent sense that a single em dash was wrong-headed blinded me to the sense of it in prose over the years. Instead of having some sort of mental sense of a pause or a break, I’d just think “Whoop, casually incorrect usage” and proceed on. By never using it in my own writing, I didn’t gain any sense of how it shaped prose from the inside, and so it remained a mystery marker in others’ prose, never gaining a rightful sense of place in the lexicon of punctuation.

So now, much later on, I’m left having very little feel for how an unpaired em dash affects the flow of a sentence, or at least a feel that is vastly different from that of most people’s. When the punctuation is aberrant anyway—as in Tristram Shandy, say, or in Celine, which is probably where I first was preoccupied by the visual and phenomenological effects of punctuation on verbal pacing—it’s not such a problem, but in everyday writing, I’m left missing part of the sensus communis.

Of course this argument could be extended to all sorts of words and phrases as well….


  1. In the last few months, I’ve found that I’ll compose a sentence with a semicolon, then edit it to a period on a second pass. This isn’t an objection to the semicolon. Rather, it’s a way creating short sentences for effect. Much better to start with the semicolon and then revise; the sentences that result have a way of leaning in to each other. I’ve also found myself using fewer paired emdashes for interjections and more lone emdashes for effect.

  2. What a fun post. I am a big semicolon fan, as you may or may not have noticed. You’re quite right that it’s out of fashion, and as an editor by trade I get to use my own writing to break all my house style rules that I think are wrong, stupid, or just ugly (for example, I can’t use the Oxford comma at work). I agree very much with this:

    So for me the semicolon also has the regulative function of releasing the accumulated pressure of the monotony of seemingly repetitious sentence patterns.

    It’s somewhat speculative, but I believe the reason for its falling out of fashion is simply that relatively few people know how to use it correctly, and it’s not seen as having a critical use case—since you always can replace it with a period, and the change is “merely” aesthetic, it’s easier on editors (teachers?) to simply banish the semicolon. (And as you can see I like em dashes, too. And parens.)

  3. A very interesting post. It’s got me thinking about my own punctuation habits. I’ll address some of the points it raises seriatim.

    The semi-colon: It doesn’t surprise me that it’s more unfashionable than the colon; the latter – while perhaps more ‘finicky’, as you say – seems to me to be more concrete in its application, while the former is more subtle. Without wishing to sound snobbish, I think the semi-colon requires a more refined sense of the language than the colon (I remember that when I was a schoolboy I just couldn’t get to grips with it). But ultimately, I think it’s the more useful punctuation mark. It’s a shame that it’s out of fashion, but at least it’s not moribund.

    The Oxford comma: I almost always use it. I don’t care what the vogue prescription on the matter is; it just feels more natural to me, and it prevents against any miscues. I suppose that my punctuation leans towards the heavy side. Although I do admire some writers at the other end of the spectrum. Take someone like Cormac McCarthy, for example, whose alarming penchant for polysyndeton ensures that few commas creep into his work. This is doubly interesting for the fact that in other ways his style is so baroque–his work certainly couldn’t be equated with most of the ‘flat, staccato American fiction of the 1980s and 1990s’. And yet he seems pretty vehement in his disdain for what he perceives as over-punctuation (I’ve heard him say as much in interviews). I wonder whether we’ll one day be talking about how the comma has gone out of fashion.

    The colon and the em dash: The colon I use more sparingly (although not in this response, it would seem). Other than the above usage, I use it as a means to convey imminent elaboration on something from the preceding clause that seems to require elaboration (e.g. ‘Maradona had one aim: to win the World Cup’). The em dash I use with perhaps greater frequency. I never use it parenthetically (such a usage seems to be more of an American thing), but rather in a similar way to the colon. The difference is that the clause preceding the dash isn’t set up so as to make elaboration a necessity; what follows is therefore more like augmentation then explanation (see the above example). The lonely em dash, I feel, lies somewhere between parentheses and the semi-colon.

    The en dash and parentheses (brackets): You didn’t mention the en dash (I have noticed that it seems to be more prevalent in British punctuation), but it is part of my repertoire. I use it as Americans often use the em dash (parenthetically). Unlike with the em dash, I never use a lonely en dash; there’s no call for it. While I am sometimes a bit lax with en dashes and brackets (i.e. I mix them up), my general rule seems to be that en dashes should be used to qualify or enumerate something that is to be found directly in the text of the preceding clause, whereas brackets should qualify or enumerate something that is more peripheral or contextual.

    If the truth be told, though, this is the first time that I’ve really thought about all of this, so I might have to comb through the vaults a bit more before I can be definitive on these points!

  4. The colon: aphorist acne.

  5. Nice post David! I am now feeling insecure about my own use of em dashes, which I perhaps all too often use to break up sentences … My main highschool memory about punctuation is the time I told by a very strict teacher that I overused parenthesis. But back then, I think the offending item was the bracket rather than the em dash.

  6. “Then one fine day, of unparalleled brightness and turbulence, I found my steps impelled, as though by some external agency, towards the fence; and this impulsion was maintained, until I could go no further, in that direction, without doing myself a serious, if not fatal, injury; then it left me and I looked about, a thing I never used to do, on any account, in the ordinary way. How hideous is the semi-colon. I say an external agency; for of my own volition, which, if not robust, did nevertheless possess, at that period, a kind of kittenish tenacity, I should never have gone near the fence, under any circumstances; for I was very fond of fences, of wire fences, very fond indeed; not of walls, nor palisades, nor opacious hedges, no; but to all that limited motion, without limiting vision, to the ditch, the dyke, the barred window, the bog, the quicksand, the paling, I was deeply attached, at that time, deeply deeply attached.”

  7. What stink of artifice.

  8. Well look at Mercier and Camier going at it here.

    I recall Frank Bidart talking in an interview (it must have been the one in In the Western Night) at great length about combinations of punctuation marks he used in his poems. I’m not sure if they ever succeeded in having the specific effects he seemed to think they did, but it no doubt stuck in my mind and influenced my own attention to punctuation.

  9. I love semicolons, and I probably overuse them when a simple period will suffice. But I enjoy the nearly bossy emphasis on connection/relationship that a semi-colon brings to two ideas. Have you read C.F. Ramuz in the original French? He uses more semi-colons than any one else I’ve ever read. He can write five sentences in a row, each with one or even two semi-colons… a challenge to translate, since I think an English reader would never, ever put up with that much semi-colon love.

  10. From Semicolon & Empire: The True Story of the Punctuation that Changed the World:

    “Write to the Stationery Office for a sufficient supply of Full Stops, Semi-colons, and Commas; but more especially Semi-colons, for the use of the copying clerks of the office; I furnish these things out of my own private stores when I have time to look over despatches for signature, but I am not always sufficiently at leisure to supply deficiencies.” – Lord Palmerston

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