The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note

The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note

The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note     (February 11th, 2018)


Music sheets shuffled. Cases unlocked. Orange gleaming brass lifted out; fingers rolled over pneumatic keys. Reed tested, discarded, new one wetted, whistled and squeaked. The thumps of drums settling, legs extended; key on lugs, turning; stick tap-dancing light hits, skipping across the drum head; turns on the screw and tones rising to the key. Chairs shunted, guitar note loud over all – fingers across a fret board, horizontal; fingers up and down the heavy double bass – vertical, pulled and dropped, and pressed on. A dozen different runs and scales and beats, trying out, each individual, even syncopating yet in spite of themselves. The band leader turned:

“No-dotted notes.”

Head sprung from a rachet. What? Looks amongst them.

“No dotted notes. No triplets.”

Stares. Blank-faced. Plain.

“Those are the rules. No off-beats. Certainly no grace notes.”

The lead guitarist looked across to rhythm; rhythm looked across to the saxophone. The saxophonist glanced to the drum kit, to the shadows at the back of the stage and the man with arm ready extended over the ride. The wooden stick caught the light; it slowly withdrew, leaving only the gleam of the cymbal.

“Let’s play.”


The jazz band banned from playing jazz.


If you’re wondering what a dotted note is, or are trying to draw out some lost impression from age-eleven piano class: it’s what makes jazz swing. Think of the swoosh sound of a big band in your head, the ping of stick on cymbal that seems to skip along – that’s dotted notes. If you looked at the sheet music you might see that swing written in triplet form – another attempt to capture the elusive feel on paper. Talking definitions, a dotted note is when you simply put a dot after a note, and thereby increase the note’s value by half again. So, a quaver (half a beat) gets a dot and now lasts for three quarters of a beat. A semi-quaver (a quarter of a beat) gets a dot and lasts for a quarter of a beat plus an eighth of a beat. There are even dotted, dotted notes…

This musical punctuation is what makes jazz jazzy; it’s what makes much of rock roll. Think of the familiar drum rhythm of every single ‘Oasis’ song and you are also listening to dotted notes: half beats, which pull out beyond the off-beat – the typical nodding of the head and even tapping of the foot – and then fall again before the next whole beat arrives. Think of the bass drum-snare drum pattern at the beginning of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and you are hearing in your mind close-cousins of the dotted note: driving beats landing a breath before or after – somewhere in the mysterious in between.

Remove the possibility of such graceful notes and rhythms, and what possibilities would be left to music? For martialling rhythm means that everything becomes a march; and when everything is a march, few, in time, even remember they are marching.

Yet, as the title lets on, I’m talking about literary punctuation here, not just time signatures and drum solos: The Semi-colon.

There are probably few things less well understood in English, and less frequently dared into use, than this half-way shape of hovering full-stop and comma; and yet I am presenting the case that trying to write expressively without it is like trying to play jazz saxophone while only staying on the 1, and beat.

Commas, Full stops, Semi-colons; Colons, Dashes, and Parentheticals, are neglected proportionate to our ability to express ourselves. Taking a step away from the music analogy – put it in terms of simply speaking. We don’t usually consider the punctuation that girds our speech, but imagine enforced conversation rules where the only pauses allowed were the full stop and comma. No ellipses… no dash aside when a new thought occurs, muddled with morphing brackets as your thoughts congeal, jumping to a colon as you splutter a list of semi-colons, commas, started full-stops, which sprout comma’s wing beneath, or mirrored dot above. We would speak as rhythmic robots essentially. And yet that is what has been advocated increasingly on the page/screen since the styles of some very talented modernist writers became the new norm. We don’t speak this way, and wouldn’t listen to rhythmically shackled music this way – so why on earth do we think we should write and read this way?

The language of our memos and emoji laden messages has forgotten what punctuation can do. We articulate in solely starts and stops – and occasionally dashes. Now, I’m not saying there is no benefit nor purpose to shorthand. English needs to fit its purpose, and the needs of business English are clearly not the same as those of stream of consciousness or poetry. But when novels are written, by and large, in a comparable standard of active English – with a few italics for emphasis – to emails, something important may have been lost.  

The achievements of modernism should inform our literature. But not encapsulate it. Hemingway. Orwell. The power of direct English: it serves an ideological purpose, a persuasive, particularly compelling purpose. But if that’s all you can do, then you’re a drummer banging in a 2/2 time signature for every single song. Yet, by the 1960s’ ‘postmodernism’ of Kurt Vonnegut, the writing and rhythm often heard was largely that: a shorter, heavier punching frame, which had lost the foresight to see what it was swinging for. As Vonnegut wrote: Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… all they do is show you’ve been to college.” Not the colleges of the present time, certainly. You won’t learn about them there.

In the World War II of Vonnengut’s ‘Slaughter House Five,’ fire-bombing Dresden serves little purpose; war is pointless; death is neither here nor there; for time and life are pointless too. I feel about Vonnengut’s ‘Slaughter House Five,’ much as I do about his views on writing – his lack of insight ran parallel. In what is supposedly a very meta novel, can an attempt to describe and define existence really make do without the ‘;’ ?

Even if the fascists are coming for you? No need to take a quicker, a more panicked, a more careful, a more devastating breath?

For that is what punctuation symbols are. The breaths that you breathe. That characters breathe. That readers breathe. They are the pause in thought, the glance aside, the dead stop in rage; they are the look up of your antagonist and the view that meets his eyes, which filters through him, requiring less than a weighted full stop and more than a sudden comma. They are experience and thought and meaning, and to exclude their use and deem it as solely ‘showing off’ is to forget half of the timing of being human. We should no more attempt to live or write life with only commas and full-stops, than we should attempt a guitar solo without dotted notes. The result. It clunks.

Sometimes writing must clunk. Sometimes, as in an academic essay, a semi-colon must follow the ‘Manuals of Style’ and ‘connect two independent, closely related and individually complete clauses.’ Sometimes, it must both flow, and clunk, and then also be the balance between ‘two independent clauses;’ and sometimes the dotted note can add its counterpoint, giving rhythm, leaping quickly on, in an attempt to fully express more than language can achieve through words alone.

Writing needs its dotted notes.

To finish with a finely composed symphony; and first as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of ‘The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ and Daniel Defoe’s use of semi-colons (whether they were improvised by Defoe or a later editor is another question):

“Worthy of Shakespeare; and yet the simple semi-colon after it, the simple passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself. A meaner writer… would have put an ‘!’ after ‘away,’ and have commenced a new paragraph.”

And by Defoe:’

“I smiled to myself at the sight of this money. “O drug!” said I aloud, “what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no, not the taking off of the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap. I have no manner of use for thee; even remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saving.” However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvas, I began to think of making another raft; but while I was preparing this, I found the sky overcast, and the wind began to rise, and in a quarter of an hour it blew a fresh gale from the shore…”


Copyright © 2018 by Dominic Graham

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