The perfect punctuation

When you look, it literally stops your breath.

It is a little dam in the relentless gush of being; a tiny raised stitch hitching up the fabric of time; a minute crampon allowing us to cling to the slippery slopes of meaning; yet this delicate, broken curb is also inherently porous, allowing sense to flow forwards even as it catches it momentarily, swinging open like the flippers in a pinball machine to propel sense and sentiment on.

Yes. The semi-colon.

Most of us have a moment, usually around twelve, a tremulous, game-changing moment when we realise that we are simply and irrevocably different from the other kids; mine occurred when I discovered that no-one else had a favourite punctuation mark.

It has become something of an obsession. I have to stop myself from forming every sentence I write around the semi-colon’s broken curve. It is no coincidence that it has become the international symbol for the knowing, winking smile; this mark is a professional tease, separating phrases yet indicating their interdependence as it does so. It is both curtailer and coupler; a Pandarus of punctuation that gently holds concepts a hairs-breadth apart to make their collision all the sweeter.

No wonder it was invented by an Italian. I like to imagine Aldus Manutius, squinting over his fifteenth-century woodblocks, his aquiline nose radiant in a mullion-patterned shaft of Venetian light as he levitates a full stop, slips a comma beneath, and grins wolfishly at the perfection of his elegant new hybrid.

There; there, he thinks.

You may assume that all punctuation is perfect, each economic symbol doing its essential bit to disambiguate our language. You are wrong. The full stop is basically death, absolute and eternal; demanding total respect but difficult to love. The comma is too common to adore; a promiscuous, breathy slip of a thing that races ahead with laboradorian gusto. The question mark is tainted with aggressive egocentricity, obliterating subtlety with its lollipop-headed LA twang. And worst of all is the exclamation ‘point’ – as F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably put it, “like laughing at your own jokes.”

Start noticing semi-colons. See how they manipulate you so easily, so quietly, so prettily. Give their complex hiatuses the fully loaded micro-pauses they deserve.

Then go out and play with the other children, dear.