Saturday, June 21, 2008


; )

I've been on the road the last couple of weeks -- first at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna and then researching in London -- but came back yesterday to find my new piece on the rise and fall of the semicolon up at Slate.

My favorite find -- aside from discovering an Anti-Comma League in 1930s France -- was "this extraordinary passage from Samuel Salter's Sermon Before the Sons of the Clergy (1755)":

It is evident then; that, if Atossa was the first inventress of the Epistles; these, that carry the name of Phalaris, who was so much older than her, must needs be an imposture.—But, if it be otherwise; that he does not describe me under those general reproaches; a small satisfaction shall content you; which I leave you to be the judge of. ... Pray, let me hear from you; as soon as you can.

One eye-opener for me was just how much early grammars relied on oratory for explaining punctuation -- they are explained here in 1737's Bibliotheca Technologica in terms of pausing and counting. ("The comma (,) which stops the voice while you tell [count] one. The Semicolon (;) pauseth while you tell two. ")

A lovely variation on this notion got lost in my edits -- namely, that later 18th century grammarians likened these pauses to musical note values:

The Period is a pause in quantity or duration double of the Colon; the Colon is double of the Semicolon; and the Semicolon is double of the Comma. So they are in the same proportion to one another, as the Semibrev, the Minim, the Crotchet, and the Quaver, in music.... the same composition may be rehearsed in a faster or slower time: but in Music the proportions between the Notes remains ever the same; and in Discourse, if the doctrine of punctuation were exact, the proportion between Pauses would be ever invariable.

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