As Ugly As A Tick On A Dog’s Belly

The semicolon is not everybody’s cup of tea. Mark Twain may have been dismissive of their appearance, but in Huckleberry Finn he used 1,562 of them. Herman Melville loved them, peppering his text of Moby Dick with over four thousand semicolons, an average of one for every 52 words. How did this Marmite of punctuation marks come to be used in the first place?

The culprit or hero of our story is a printer who operated in Venice towards the end of the 15th century, Aldus Manutius. Not only was he an accurate printer but he was also innovative. He was the first to perfect the printing of the Greek alphabet, enabling the classical texts of the likes of Plato and Aristotle to be more easily replicated. Manutius’ conquering of Greek script cemented the roles of Plato and Aristotle in Renaissance thought and scholarship.

Manutius was also responsible for developing Italic fonts, where the letters lurch rather drunkenly to the right. In his day books and documents were unwieldy and large, barely portable and meant that readers had to go to the books rather than books accompanying the reader. Manutius’ third innovation was to create the Octavio paper size for printing, essentially the traditional flat sheet folded into half, then half again and then half again, so that it was an eight of its original size. The age of the portable book had dawned.

Punctuation was a rather hit and miss affair. For centuries manuscripts had been written in scriptio continua, where all the letters and words formed one continuous stream, only broken when the scribe reached the end of the line or page. Anyone who has read a mediaeval text, I had to as part of my third year at university, will know that it is a slow and laborious task to extract any meaning from a long line of letters, leaving aside any scribal errors. Manutius realised that the power of printing opened up a wider audience for his products but that readers needed an easier and quicker way of making sense of the jumble of letters on a page and so set about introducing and standardising punctuation.

The semicolon first made its appearance in 1494 in a literary Latin text called De Aetna, printed by Manutius, written by Pietro Bembo and using a hybrid mark, a full stop sitting above a comma, produced especially by the Bolognese type designer, Francesco Griffo. The book, De Aetna, was an essay written in dialogue form about climbing the Sicilian volcano. The semicolons were used primarily to separate long lists of items.

Mind you, there was room for confusion. The same symbol is also used as an abbreviation for -ue in the conjunction neque, meaning “and or also not”, although it is positioned at the same level of the words on the page to show it is not a pause.  

Seen as something halfway between a full stop which brings a sentence to a conclusion and a comma which indicates a small pause in the flow, there were no hard and fast rules governing the use of a semicolon. The playwright, Ben Jonson, had a go at defining its use, calling it “a distinction of an imperfect sentence, wherein with somewhat a longer breath, the sentence following is included”. Over time its usage settled down to providing assistance with a long list of items and to allow two ideas, concepts or sentiments to flow together into one sentence as they would into your mind. Its heyday was in the 19th century, but nowadays editors try to discourage its use.

The semicolon has caused some trouble over the years. A dispute over its usage between two University of Paris law professors in 1837 was settled by a duel. A rogue semicolon which entered the transcription of a statute led to the suspension of alcohol service in Boston for six years due to the ambiguity it had caused. In 1927 two men accused of the same crime in a New Jersey murder trial received different sentences because of the misuse of a semicolon. Salvatore Rannelli received a life sentence; Salvatore Merra the death sentence. In 1945, a semicolon in the definition of war crimes in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal threatened to stop the prosecution of Nazi war criminals until the ambiguities were clarified.

Use with caution is my advice.

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