Are semi-colons a sign of madness?


Alas, for it seems he was a nice chap with his heart mostly in the right place, the best known fact about George III is that he went mad, and the best known fact about his madness is that its cause was porphyria. But it seems we have been wrong about that. Last week, on Lucy Worsley’s  BBC documentary series “Fit to Rule”, we learned that the classic symptom of porphyria, blue urine, can also be caused by a tincture of gentian, which the Royal physicians had been prescribing to the King.

It is axiomatic that documentaries abhor a vacuum, so as soon as the porphyria hypothesis was out of the way, a clinical neurologist called Dr Peter Garrard came forth with a new one. Using the diagnostic tools he employs on his patients today, Dr Garrard has concluded that George III suffered from mania. The tool, I was interested to see, was an examination of the complexity of the King’s written sentence structure.

Dr Garrard showed us two letters written by George, one when he was descending into madness, and the other when he was emerging from it. (Or rather, we were shown brief glimpses of a text which you could only read if you paused the screen and squinted hard.) The page written when George was recovering had, we were told, about 400 words, punctuated as 5 or 6 sentences. These figures are strangely vague, considering they form part of a formal analysis, but we can conclude that each sentence has between 67 and 80 words. Dr Garrard told us this is normal. The other letter, written when George was displaying signs of madness, is 500-600 words long (again, why so vague?) and it is divided into only two sentences that are hundreds of words long.

Massive verbosity, said Dr Garrard, is associated with the manic phases of bipolar disorder. And Dr Worsley chimed in to report that there are contemporary descriptions of the poor mad king that described him as talking and talking till the foam ran out of his mouth.

But these two behaviours, writing very long sentences and talking incessantly, are not two sides of the same coin. While the latter certainly conveys signs that all is not well in the mind of the speaker, the former could just as well be a sign that the writer has a fondness for complex punctuation. Indeed, it was possible, by pausing the TV screen, to discern serial semi-colons in George’s first ‘mad’ sentence.

When I noticed that Dr. Garrard had written the term ‘T-unit’ on the top of the page, I felt right at home as I have worked with T-unit analyses for many years. They are defined as the shortest syntactic chunks into which writing can be sliced up, and they give you some idea of writing sophistication, especially in children developing their literacy skills. So, the cat caught a mouse is one T-unit.  The cat caught another mouse; I hate it when she does that is two T-units even though it is punctuated as one sentence.

It is possible that Dr Garrard imagines, wrongly, T-unit boundaries to be defined by full stops. This could be the explanation for how his analysis of George’s mad letter produced the total of only two very complex sentences comprised of hundreds of words each. But if you took George III’s ‘mad’ letter and replaced the semi-colons with full stops, the number of ‘sentences’ would increase from two to many more, and the intrinsic complexity, and accuracy, of the grammar would not be altered in any way. This  would undermine the mania diagnosis by writing, however.

Dr Garrard also claimed that there was a lexical dimension to his diagnosis which he called ‘word sophistication’. He showed two words from George’s ‘mad’ letter, unattentive and utmost, declaring them to be ‘sophisticated’ — on what evidence I do not know—and therefore signs of the ‘creativity’ that is associated with mood disorders. To me, however, utmost is a  rather ordinary word that would not raise an eyebrow anywhere, and while unattentive is not common now, it may well have been in the late 18th century. This is flimsy, and very subjective, evidence for madness where a proper diachronic analysis of George III’s writing would be much stronger. Did he use utmost and other so-called ‘sophisticated’ words when not displaying signs of madness? What is his mean length of T-unit before, during and after his mental incapacity? What is the mean number of semi-colons per sentence before, during and after his mental incapacity? (There is a PhD thesis in there somewhere, perhaps.)

There is another strange dimension to Dr Gerrard’s methodology of looking for correlations of madness with punctuation. He counts verbs in sentences/T-units (he is not clear about which) to ascertain their level of complexity, and reports that George used as many as eight. Taking the view that there is an inverse relation between number of verbs in sentences and the writer’s level of mental health,  he goes on to claim:

“Sentences that you or I use typically contain one, or at the most, two verbs.”

This is so astonishingly wide of the mark, that I struggle to understand where he could have come up with this idea, especially as he had claimed a few minutes earlier that sentences of 67-80 words were the norm, thereby suggesting that we routinely string together dozens of words around a single verb. The real ‘norm’ can be ascertained simply by looking at a large enough sample of everyday speech or writing and then calculating the ratio of verbs to words in sentences. (Or rather, we should use T-units for writing and AS-units for speech, as these have greater psycholinguistic validity than the things we call sentences.)

To get us started, here is a sample of Dr Gerrard’s own speech, transcribed from the ‘Fit to Rule’ programme:

“I don’t think there can be any doubt anymore that the porphyria hypothesis is dead in the water, and that this was a psychotic illness, and that these periods that his doctors described are reflections, classic reflections almost, of manic behaviour.”

One AS-unit, forty-two words, one main, two auxiliary and five dependent verbs.  Eight verbs in all.  Mad or what?

To conclude, I leave you with a passage written in 1755 by a contemporary of George III, Samuel Johnson. It is from his Preface to the Dictionary in which he writes of his hopes that this great achievement, though imperfect, will be well received.  It’s one of the most eloquently crafted prose works in English, and its punctuation reflects what was much admired at the time: sentences made by the copious joining of clauses through colons and semi-colons.  The passage below has 231 words and is punctuated as one sentence. If George III was mad in adopting this style, then so was just about everyone alive and writing in the 18th century.

That (the Dictionary) will immediately become popular I have not promised to myself: a few wild blunders, and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance in contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never can be wanting some who distinguish desert; who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand; that a writer will sometimes be hurried by eagerness to the end, and sometimes faint with weariness under a task, which Scaliger compares to the labours of the anvil and the mine; that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present; that sudden fits of inadvertency will surprize vigilance, slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain trace his memory at the moment of need, for that which yesterday he knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his thoughts to-morrow.”