Sunday, June 15, 2008

FRANCE ARGUES OVER THE SEMICOLON

JON HENLEY, THE GUARDIAN, UK - It is a debate you could only really have in a country that accords its intellectuals the kind of status other nations - to name no names - tend to reserve for footballers, footballers' wives or (if they're lucky) rock stars; a place where structuralists and relativists and postmodernists, rather than skulk shamefacedly in the shadows, get invited on to primetime TV; a culture in which even today it is considered entirely acceptable, indeed laudable, to state one's profession as "thinker". That country is France, which is currently preoccupied with the fate of its ailing semicolon.

Encouragingly, a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon appeared on the web (only to disappear some days later, which cannot be a very good sign). Articles have been written in newspapers and magazines. The topic is being earnestly discussed on the radio. It was even the subject of an April Fool's joke on a leading internet news site, which claimed, perfectly plausibly, that President Nicolas Sarkozy had just decreed that to preserve the poor point-virgule from an untimely end, it must henceforth be used at least three times a page in all official correspondence.

In the red corner, desiring nothing less than the consignment of the semicolon to the dustbin of grammatical history, are a pair of treacherous French writers and (of course) those perfidious Anglo-Saxons, for whose short, punchy, uncomplicated sentences, it is widely rumored, the rare subtlety and infinite elegance of a good semicolon are surplus to requirements. The point-virgule, says legendary writer, cartoonist and satirist Fran├žois Cavanna, is merely "a parasite, a timid, fainthearted, insipid thing, denoting merely uncertainty, a lack of audacity, a fuzziness of thought". . .

In the blue corner are an array of linguistic patriots who cite Hugo, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Proust and Voltaire as examples of illustrious French writers whose respective oeuvres would be but pale shadows of themselves without the essential point-virgule, and who argue that - in the words of one contributor to a splendidly passionate blog on the topic hosted recently by the leftwing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur - "the beauty of the semicolon, and its glory, lies in the support lent by this particular punctuation mark to the expression of a complex thought".

The semicolon, continues this sadly anonymous defender of the Gallic grammatical faith, "finds its rightful home in the subtlety of a fine and rich analysis, one which is not afraid to pronounce - and sometimes to withhold - judgment where mere affirmation might be found wanting. It allows the writer to link ideas without breaking a train of thought; by contrast, over-simplified communication and bald, efficient discourse whose simplistic style is the best guarantee of being widely understood is naturally wary of this punctuation mark."

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home