When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn’t over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the semicolon. “The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm,” noted the Times. “His adversary maintained that it should be a colon.”

French passions over the semicolon are running high once again. An April Fool’s hoax this year by the online publication Rue89 claimed that the Nicolas Sarkozy government planned to demand “at least three semicolons per page in official administrative documents.” Parliamentarian Benoist Apparu was in on the joke—”The disappearance of the semicolon in Eastern France is absolutely dramatic,” he gamely proclaimed—and linguist Alain Rey (barely) kept a straight face for a video calling Frenchmen to arms. Reporters were taken in, since, like every great hoax, it was plausible enough to be true. Le Figaro has proclaimed, “The much-loved semicolon is in the process of disappearance; let us protect it,” and there was even a brief attempt at a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon—a modern update on the Anti-Comma League that France had back in 1934. French commentators blame the semicolon’s decline on everything from “the modern need for speed” to the corrupting influence of English and its short, declarative sentences. It’s a charge leveled for years stateside, too, with Sven Birkerts bemoaning the Internet’s baleful influence on semicolons a decade ago.

Has modern life killed the semicolon?…

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.” And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that “the killer could be a freelance journalist” because of his “use of a semicolon” in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that “Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.”)

Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate’s founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that “[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is.” All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it’s tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student’s first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

Paul Collins