From The Email Bag: Orwell’s Semicolons

Recent podcasts and my February Diary generated many interesting reactions & responses. I shall report them piecemeal, as time allows.

In the Diary I noted the literary folklore about George Orwell having written a novel without any semicolons, and my attempt to verify this.

I went to the only online text of Coming Up for Air that I could find and did a Ctrl-F for semicolons. The text has five. That’s a very small number for an Orwell novel: the text at that same website of the earlier Burmese Days has 258 semicolons. Five is not zero, though. Is Orwell folklore on this point false? Scrutinizing the occurrences, it looks to me as though they should be colons, so perhaps these are errors of transcription. If any reader has a print copy of the novel – preferably a first edition – and wouldn’t mind checking those five occurrences, I’d be glad to know the result.

Readers rose to the challenge.  Reader A:

I happen to have the Penguin 20th Century Classic edition of Coming Up for Air in my bookcase. It was printed in 1990 and says inside: “This edition was first published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. in the Complete works of George Orwell series 1986.” I did a Ctrl-F search [i.e. on that online text I linked to — J.D.] and the first three supposed semi-colons in the online version are commas in my book, the last two are indeed semi-colons.

Reader B:

My version of Coming Up For Air is a 2000 Penguin Modern Classics reprint of the 1986 Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd edition … The semicolons you found in the online edition show as commas in my book.

However, the editor Peter Davison includes a note on the text that discusses three semicolons in a surviving set of Orwell’s proofs.

The link to  Davison’s note is Google Books search link, and may not work for everyone—here’s a screenshot of the relevant text.

It’s clear at any rate that with either two semicolons or none in print editions, and three in Orwell’s proofs, he tried hard to avoid using any at all. The discrepancies here may be due to something in the reproduction process for different editions, I don’t know.

An interesting sub-question is why Orwell went back to using semicolons in later books. Possibly the effort of avoiding the semicolon key (it’s over at the right on manual typewriters  like my dear old Adler Gabriele 10, next to the “L” key, and when shifted delivers a colon) was just too much trouble.