Tag Archives: punctuation

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page.

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.

 

*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.

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