Saturday, September 19, 2009

What is it about GKC and the semicolon?

I thought it would be fun to give you a bit of a a laugh today, which I will do by giving you some lovely academic gobbling about what some writers consider one of the most annoying parts of Chesterton's work - that is, his use of the semicolon.

Now, as I am a computer scientist, and I have been slammed into that altered mental state from my own use of very frequent semicolons in PASCAL and "C" (that's the language, not the grade) - not to mention all the other odd punctuation things we get into since no one has seen fit to actually extend the keyboard, except for those APL people.... Ahem! Pardon me for trying to drag in my own work. Let's try this again.

I recall reading somewhere that one of the major objections to Chesterton (besides the old canard that he was usually wrong about everything) was what they call his "poor style", exemplified by his "over-use" of the semicolon. I have wondered about that; I didn't seem to recall noting any over-use, but then I have my own style anyway, altered (as I have stated) by spending too many hours typing semicolons at the end of every line. Hee hee. Nevertheless, I am just enough of a scholar to wonder how many semicolons GKC really did use - and perhaps you wondered too.

Apparently back in 1998 a study was made of this very matter, and after some searching in old and forgotten piles of paper, I found a copy. In an article by someone named "Peter Floriani" published in the little-known and all-too-short-lived Mideast Chesterton News, for April 25, 1998, I learned that Chesterton wrote 1533 essays for the Illustrated London News, ranging in size from 782 to 2847 words. The average word count was 1459.5. The article included this very interesting graph:
(MeCN 1:3, Apr 25, 1998; used by kind permission of the Editor-in-Chief.)
Finally, the article reported that these essays use semicolons ranging from 2 to 39, at an average semicolon frequency of 14.2 per essay, or just about one every ten words.

However, the article did not report on Chesterton's other use of the semicolon, which I shall now reveal. It turns out that he used the WORD (not the symbol) twice, at least as far as I can tell:
But that Seymour invented anything in the letterpress large or small, that he invented either the outline of Mr. Pickwick's character or the number of Mr. Pickwick's cabman, that he invented either the story, or so much as a semi-colon in the story was not only never proved, but was never very lucidly alleged.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:81]

With scarcely a semicolon after his hearty thanks, the little man began his recital:
[GKC "The Absence Of Mr. Glass" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]
Though Maisie Ward had this to say:
...Gilbert liked anyhow to distribute the stops and commas and especially the semi-colons on a method rather markedly his own.
[Ward, Return To Chesterton 157]
Oh my. I may be biassed, of course, from writing software, but I am sorry. I do not find the issue worth whining over. Really! Using "semicolon" two times - and once hyphenated - in some eight million words is hardly an over-use.


  1. Hey Doc,

    Has there ever been an accurate approximation (how's that for a paradox?) of the word count in toto of GKC's published works?

  2. Chesterton's frequent recourse to the semi-colon may seem lax by today's standards, but I think that its use wasn't as restricted during his lifetime. Certainly if he is to be regarded as a poor writer for using the semi-colon too liberally, then so is Dickens, and probably many another author as well.

    From a modern punctuation manual: "When we use a semi-colon, we are usually suggesting that there is a relationship between the sentences, but we are not making that relationship clear ... It is often because we want the reader to think about the relationship for himself." That sounds like what Chesterton is often up to.

    It might be instructive to find a semicolon-laden passage in Chesterton's writing and examine it closely in that light.

  3. Joey: the last time I checked AMBER, it was about 9 million words. I grant that there are a few books not by GKC included in that sum, but it is good enough for a first approximation. AMBER is over 50 megabytes, which (since 6 bytes times 9 million words is 54 megabytes) comes fairly close to the English average of five letters per word, not neglecting plus the trailing space for each. You may find the uniqueness to be astounding: the last figure I recall from my studies was about 50,000 distinct words - but bear in mind that includes plurals and verb-endings.

    As regards the "complete" works - Dale Ahlquist and I have discussed it several times. AMBER does include all the published BOOKS, and the complete ILN (which, thanks to my mother and Frank Petta, is in AMBER but is not yet in the IP CW). To our knowledge there remain at least two large sources which are not yet collected: his work in (1) the Daily News and (2) GK's Weekly. There are believed to be a number of other essays which appeared in other periodicals but these were not written with the same frequency. However being generous as to the uncollected works as omitting HALF of his output I suspect we might give a rough estimate as 20 million words.

    Anon: the fun puzzle in finding such a sentence would be to build a tool to delimit them, since ASCII 00101110 (what we call the period) has multiple uses. If I get some time, I will try to make a study... but given the present situation, I will simply tell you the two with the most semicolons and you can play with them as your own time may permit.

    The ILN essay for March 8, 1930 has 1386 words with 39 semicolons, and the one for June 3, 1911 has 1486 words with 38.

  4. And 14.2 semicolons per essay is more like one per HUNDRED words, no?


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