Monday, 25 June 2007

Nice colon, Mr. Gill.

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This week in his Times column, A.A. Gill, a man for whom a place at the GrammarBlog table is always set, proved that a well used colon is a beautiful thing.
I started with a cup of coffee and a muffin. The coffee was made by someone I heard refer to herself as “coffee overseer of the greater New York area”. What she gave me was the universal coffee-flavoured effluvium that you get from Starbucks: thick and unfocused. The muffin was similarly malco, a sweaty bun that was sweet but stupid.
Even if you overlook the wonderfully eloquent scorn, you have to marvel at the way the colon perfectly tees up the second sentence for the pay off. effluvium that you get from Starbucks: (wait for it, wait for it...)
BLAM! Thick and unfocused.
Generally, I'm a big fan of the dash - it's a modern, versatile piece of kit and very useful when a comma just isn't pause enough. Its major advantage being that it's kind of a maverick punctuation mark — the D.I. Frost of punctuation. It doesn't follow any rules, but by God it gets results. These days its use tends to usurp that of both the semicolon and the colon for this very reason - if there are no rules, it's difficult to get wrong. The writer can therefore sprinkle dashes liberally about his prose without fear of reprise.

However, Mr Gill's mastery of the colon as given me renewed endeavour to use it more myself. Despite the fact that it is unpredictable, unyielding and difficult to get a handle on, the colon just seems to have more dramatic effect, more impact. To extend the analogy, if the dash is punctuation's Frost, the colon is its Jack Bauer.

Lynn Truss is another fan of the colon, as she writes in Eats, shoots and leaves.
Using the apostrophe correctly merely tells the world you aren't a thicko. Using the comma well announces that you have an ear for sense and rhythm, confidence in your style and a proper respect for your reader, but it doesn't mark you out as a master of your craft. But colons and semicolons — well, they are in a different league, my dear!

Before you ask, you would be right to assume one thing: I do think the sun shines out of A.A. Gill's colon.

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Blogger Tom said...

Lovely stuff. I read the article on Sunday, and I have to say it was a minor Gill classic. I love the way he combines deliberately abstruse words and clauses with phrases such as "sweet but stupid". Brilliant.

I'm a big fan of the semi-colon; a punctuation mark often ignored in favour of the grammatically-backward man's catch-all punctuation mark: the comma.

26 June 2007 at 08:45  

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