My Friend the Semicolon; And Its Relation the Comma

I love semicolons; I really, really do.

What prompted this revelation is a discussion that I’ve been having at the day job. (Yes, the glamour of my day job overwhelms even me at times.)

Regardless of the outcome of the work discussion, I’ll continue in my admiration and esteem for the semicolon. I don’t think that it was ever discussed much in English composition in my grade school; it’s a punctuation mark I pretty much began using on my own. I have to guard against overusing it in my writing; because one can have too much of a good thing.

Thinking about the semicolon has made me consider its more common and humble relation, the comma, and its role in the death of Edward II. The legend propagated by Geoffrey Baker, familiar to those who know Marlowe’s play, is that Adam of Orleton, the Bishop of Hereford, acting on behalf of Mortimer and Isabella, sent an unpunctuated message to Edward’s jailers at Berkeley Castle reading, Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est. The message could be interpreted in two ways, depending upon where the reader chose to insert a comma. Placing the comma after “timere” produces: “Do not fear to kill Edward, it is a good thing,” while slipping the comma back after “nolite” produces, “Do not kill Edward, it is good to be afraid.”

Instructive as this legend is in the “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” tradition, it’s been disproved for some time. Orleton was out of the country at the time and had fallen out of favor with Isabella and Mortimer, and he in any case would hardly have been likely to send a written message so incriminating. Evidently, Baker lifted the comma story from a thirteenth-century incident recounted by Matthew Paris.

Nonetheless, the comma story continues to appear, usually in historical novels but occasionally even in nonfiction. I submit that it’s because these are the type of shenanigans one expects of a comma. The noble semicolon, on the other hand, behaves itself; no skulduggery for it.

6 thoughts on “My Friend the Semicolon; And Its Relation the Comma”

  1. I’m a great fan of the semi-colon myself; I use them really often in my blog posts. In fact, I sometimes think I use them too much; I end up going through my posts and taking a few out! 🙂

  2. When I first started reading this I was wondering where you were going with it. I knew it would have a historical connection somewhere.

    I remember reading about this in Isabel the Fair (Margaret Campbell Barnes). It does make for a interesting story.

  3. The comma story is such a good story that it’s probably immune to mundane facts 🙂 It’s exactly the sort of message one would associate with a wily politician (though I agree that a really wily operator wouldn’t have been likely to write it down).

    How fixed was punctuation in the 14th century, out of interest?

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Carla, I’m afraid I can’t answer your punctuation question. My guess would be not very.

    I was quite disappointed when I found out that the comma story was a fabrication. I always thought that Bishop Orleton ought to have been guilty; I’ve always viewed him as a rather unpleasant fellow.

  5. Carla: in the documents I’ve seen of the 14th century, they were pretty slapdash about punctuation – I’ve seen plenty of Ed II’s letters where they didn’t use any at all, even full stops!

    Agreed, Orleton was a nasty piece of work. Wish he’d got his come-uppance.

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