For want of a semicolon

August 10 2018


Could a semicolon change the composition of the American government?

Malcolm Gladwell may be one of the smartest people on the planet.

Gladwell is a journalist, thinker writer and social commentator who has written best-selling books on psycho-social issues such as what motivates great achievers, the role of the underdog, how we make decisions, and why some fantastic ideas are lost and others change the world.

Recently, he’s turned to podcasting. It’s a platform that’s perfect for Gladwell. In the past, he’s had to defend critics who’ve blasted him for ‘over-simplifying’ complex issues in his writing. Gladwell’s response has been: well, yes, because that’s what journalists do. We take a lot of information and, if we do our jobs properly, we distill it and present it so more people will understand it.

With his Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell has an ideal space in which to present enthralling and sometimes critical issues to even wider audiences than his books have done. Since beginning his podcast in 2016 he’s looked at why the fear of looking foolish can prevent even the best athletes in the world being as successful as they could be. At the process of creativity and how it’s only luck that most of us have ever heard of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. At how how some of the best land in America is the territory of a very few rich men. At the cost – in lives – of American football.

Right now, one of the things Gladwell is worried about is a semicolon. Specifically, he’s fixated on one semicolon in the US Constitution that could change the makeup of the American Congress.

Texas and the semicolon

Gladwell has found a law article that points out how that one misplaced semicolon allows a state to splinter into more states. The law article points out how this would enable the state that is now Texas to have 10 representatives instead of its current two. The political leanings of those 10 senators, two from each ‘mini Texas’, are more likely to be Republican overall now, but over time could lean the other way – and so have a major impact on the composition of Congress, and so American politics as a whole.

Gladwell takes the passage to a grammar expert. If the writers had used a full-stop, the expert says, the meaning would be clear. If they’d used a comma, it would also be clear (although the opposite to its meaning with a full-stop). But a semi-colon? The result is ambiguity and guess work that could threaten the Constitutional status of West Virginia. 

 All because of a semicolon.

The semicolon was used incorrectly by some of the best-educated people on the planet in the late 1700s. It’s frequently used incorrectly now, most often instead of a comma. And perhaps you think it doesn’t matter. But are you confident of the outcome if you’re wrong?

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