Is this the worst? Well, it's certainly great semicolon use!

Shakespeare’s infamously hopeless tragedy King Lear has lots of great lines when we are shocked and grieved by the incompetence of those supposed to lead us: in the play, hunger for power, greed for gold, personal revenge, and sheer malice and cruelty motivate kings, queens, and others to take and take and never give. The kingdom of Britain is ravaged by division, war, and family feuding, plus throw in a handful of increasingly out-of-control mental health issues, and you have a recipe for total disaster. 

Towards the end, one of the “goodies”, the once-disowned son of a nobleman, bumps into his dad who has been tortured in one of the most graphic ways in all of Shakespeare’s plays: having his eyes gouged out. Bind and bleeding, the duke stumbles across the wild countryside, eliciting horror and pity in his son when they accidentally meet. Edgar wonders to himself ‘the worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst”.  

He thought he had experienced pain and calamity, but seeing his father blind, wounded, lost, and alone plumbs new depths of horror. Only that it might still not be the end. It can always get worse.


Edgar in King Lear -- it's from a Royal Sakespeare Company performance, but I can't find the name of the actor. I love the picture though!

We, too, have seen this for years now: 2016 brought Brexit and the Trump election, ringing in four years of ever-increasing stress and anxiety, only to be topped by a (hopefully) once-in-a-century  pandemic and painful race-riots in the US, and just when we thought we were coming out of the traumatic pandemic with all its losses human, social, economic, artistic, Putin chooses to invade Ukraine, suspending the Damocles sword of third world war above our heads, not to speak of destruction and displacement in Ukraine, and global inflation and recession. Oh, and the environment anybody?


We haven’t hit the worst yet. This pit has no bottom.

Only that some of us try not to throw ourselves headlong into disaster, but the UK seems hell-bent on self-destruction: kicking themselves out of the European project into a never-ending spiral of economic and political woes, we stand again like Edgar, asking ourselves “what next?”

Incumbent Primeminister Truss has eroded her authority ever since the publication of her fatal tax plans, but the ignition kickstarting her tumble into abdication came from her own quarters, namely the then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman who resigned owing to inconsolable differences over migration and a (supposedly?) grievous technical security infringement. Her Twitter-published letter reads thus:

Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics. I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility; I resign.

That’s some delightful semicolon use, whatever one thinks of Braverman or Tory politics, now and ever!

Let’s pick the sentence apart a little: it consists of three clauses, separated by two semicolons, ending on a full stop. So far so good. All clauses could stand on their own, they have a subject and they have a verb, the minimum ingredients for a sentence. So, why does Braverman then not just use full stops?

Well in the Big Book of Grammar, the number one semicolon rule is that it ‘can replace a period if the writer wishes to narrow the gap between two closely linked sentences.’ (pages 30-31, 11th edition, edited by Jane Straus, San Francisco, 2014)

And that’s of course exactly what’s happening here. The clauses are complete and independent. They could stand on their own. Yet, Braverman wants to draw them together, wants to clearly link the chain of connection between making a mistake, owning up, and resigning. There’s an inevitability about this, as if one by force triggered the others. You cannot but resign if you accept responsibility, which you must after making a mistake. Truss and others have precisely not respected this umbilical cord relationship. They don’t respect the natural order of things (such as grammar?).

What if there were full stops instead of semicolons?

I have made a mistake. I accept responsibility. I resign.

That version’s got a pretty weakened oratorical effect on me. It seems clunky and clearly less connected. The full stops are like those shutters of the Titanic, crashing down when the water filled up the basement of the ship (remember, Millennials?).

The semicolon is also effective here, because it works together with the length of sentences. Notice how the first clause contains 6 words and is located in the past (‘I have made a mistake’). The second clause contains 3 words, no more article, and it’s in the present (‘I resign). And the last clause is just those essential things, two words, a personal pronoun, and an active verb (‘I resign’). Together, punctuation and syntax quicken the pace, leading to that inevitable conclusion of stepping down. One may recognise the rhetorical device of “isocolon” in this sentence: that’s when you pattern your sentences, clauses, or lines in the (nearly) exact way, giving them (nearly) equal length. It’s from the Greek and means “equal” (isos) and “portion” (colon). 

Do you also think the triplet of semicoloned clauses sounds like Caesar’s famous dictum “I came; I saw; I conquered”? Perhaps, Braverman gives us clues as to her political intentions in the future…?

That’s some sentence packed with effective rhetoric and political allusions. Kudos to your punctuation game, Suella!

Now, while I absolutely love the semicolon, and rejoice any time I encounter it in the wild (as in outside of literary books), and while a surprising amount of people pick ; as their favourite mark, it does have a rather bad rep in authorly circles.

Kurt Vonnegut, here seeing hating the ; (while actually using lots of it!)

Mark Twain said it looks ‘as ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’. Edward Abbey believedd it was a ‘storm of fly shit’ And Kurt Vonnegut alleged ‘all they do is show you’ve been to college’ (he said other curious things, too, but that’s for another blog entry!).

I’m just going to leave those opinions here, while I let you judge for yourself whether those characterisations ring true in the Braverman semicolon case…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *