Two Great Parties

by John Holbo on October 21, 2014

I’m reading up on the history of party politics. It’s a nice question why Henry Bolingbroke doesn’t get more credit for theorizing the benefits of Two Great Parties. But, now that I’m tucking into his “Dissertation Upon Parties”, I’m starting to get a notion.

Dude did not appreciate that regarding Whigs and Tories as closely related independent causes, yet great, does not make it great to write in closely related, independent clauses. Ahem:

How the notions then in vogue began to change, and this spirit to decline, some time after the Restoration; how the zeal of Churchmen and Dissenters against one another began to soften, and a Court and Country party to form themselves; how faction mingled itself again in the contest, and renewed the former resentments and jealousies; how Whig and Tory arose, the furious offspring of those inauspicious parents roundhead and cavalier; how the proceedings of one party might have thrown us back into a civil war, confusion and anarchy; how the success of the other had like to have entailed tyranny on the state, and popery in Church; how the Revolution did, and could alone, deliver us from the grievances we felt, and from the dangers we feared; how this great event was brought about by a formal departure of each side from the principles objected to them by the other; how this renewal of our constitution, on the principles of liberty, by the most solemn, deliberate, national act, that ever was made, did not only bind at least every one of those, who concurred in any degree to bring it about (and that description includes almost the whole nation); but how absurd it is for any man, who was born since that era, or who, being born before it, hath been bound by no particular, legal tie to any other settlement, to be willing to give up the advantages of the present constitution, any more than he would give up the privileges of the great charter, which was made and ratified so many ages ago; all these points are to be now touched in that summary manner which I have prescribed to myself, and which will be sufficient, in so plain a case, where men are to be reminded of what they know already, rather than to be informed, and to be confirmed, not to be convinced.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the use of the semicolon, in English, peaks at about the time that the notion of the ‘loyal opposition’ enters the language. For is not an independent clause, separated from the rest of the sentence, yet remaining within it, courtesy of a semicolon, something like a loyal, propositional opposition? And is not the ultimate break-up of the British Empire perhaps a phenomenon to be studied in parallel with, so to speak, post-semicolonial studies?

Some of this work is, admittedly, speculative.



JakeB 10.21.14 at 3:23 am

My next band will be named “Propositional Opposition;” what it lacks in the challenging paradoxicality of Judas Priest’s splendidly-titled “Dissident Aggressor”, it gains in euphony.


Glen Tomkins 10.21.14 at 5:15 am

And all of this work is miserably pun-itive.


Glen Tomkins 10.21.14 at 5:16 am

Oh, and lay off poor Bolingbroke. He’s just trying to write like Thucydides.


ZM 10.21.14 at 7:18 am

How fortunate we find ourselves now and what thanks we owe to you most learned professor Holbo, leading us out of the dimness of post-modernism thus; how we have been living in the dark all these long years without a guide to the laws of the rise and fall of empires, like confused hens; how opportune this moment has come at last , just as we poor commenters were encircled by permanent nightfall and contending between ourselves with comments blindly made about the death or otherwise of grand narratives without enough citations ; how my foolish comments are now proven wrong , my very footsteps missteps; how bright now is the beam of light shining upon our heretofore shadowy path as we learn empires rise and fall in accordance with the use of punctuation markings; how uninformed those that passed before us casting their unenlightened eyes to the stars in the sky to tell them their fortunes; how lost our sorry contemporaries contenting themselves with discussions of whether r is greater than g , mere alphabet letterings; how we must bow down to your herculean speculative efforts and orient ourselves in the rise and decline of tides of civilisation through thorough and judicious examination of punctuation; how our age shall rejoice to be found and named at last when, in order to rise to civilised heights once again, all peoples shall employ formal english in this newly glad age, the Age of Punctuation Restoration.


chris y 10.21.14 at 12:55 pm

Bolingbroke was arguably the greatest rogue who was ever rehabilitated; nevertheless I will defend his semicolons in the last ditch.


Quintus 10.21.14 at 1:05 pm

Wasn’t Bolingbroke noted for emulating Alcibiades rather than Thucydides, and lacking principle, purpose or path?


jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.21.14 at 1:41 pm

I was wondering what happened to semicolons. I see now that abusers like Bolingbroke are what happened.


Bloix 10.21.14 at 2:14 pm

For Holbo’s history with the semicolon, see, e.g., (“I’m convinced that the main export of Victorian England was the overused semicolon.”)


cs 10.21.14 at 2:49 pm

I guess today we would use bullet points


John Holbo 10.21.14 at 3:20 pm

I had totally forgotten about that post, Bloix. Thanks for the trip down vague memory lane.


John Holbo 10.21.14 at 3:20 pm

“I guess today we would use bullet points”



Main Street Muse 10.21.14 at 3:29 pm

ZM – are you a fan of AP style? The “professor Holbo” seems to indicate such a leaning… (though that particular rule makes no sense to me.)

John Holbo: “And is not the ultimate break-up of the British Empire perhaps a phenomenon to be studied in parallel with, so to speak, post-semicolonial studies?”

I guess semi-colonial explains that era. But what to glean from post-comma era of now? Is the entire world breaking apart now (or perhaps just the US) due to the loss of the comma and other tools of grammar? (Or are your students still handy with the comma?)


Tyrone Slothrop 10.21.14 at 4:04 pm

This post should undergo a (semi-)colonoscopy…


Anderson 10.21.14 at 4:11 pm

One reason the Victorians, at least, overused semicolons was that many of those authors practiced “rhetorical” punctuation: comma for a brief pause, semicolon for longer than that, colon or dash for longer still ….

English grammar, like English literature, was a slow starter as a school subject. Gentlemen’s sons did not attend school to learn their *own* language; they attended school to learn Latin (and, if unlucky, Greek). So the modern rules of semicolon usage hadn’t been publicized (or perhaps even contrived). One’s sense of punctuation depended on one’s sense of rhetoric and experience in reading.


geo 10.21.14 at 6:06 pm

What a glorious sentence! What majestic melody! What regal rhythm! What sumptuous sonority! Reminds one of Burke at his most brilliant, Fox at his most felicitous, Johnson at his most magisterial.

You’re right, John: people who could write like that deserved to rule the world.


mattski 10.21.14 at 6:06 pm

The beleaguered, disrespected semicolon, wandering the glyph-o-sphere as a wink.


Trader Joe 10.21.14 at 6:47 pm

@15 geo

“What a glorious sentence! What majestic melody! What regal rhythm! What sumptuous sonority! Reminds one of Burke at his most brilliant, Fox at his most felicitous, Johnson at his most magisterial.”

You obviously didn’t learn that the use of the ! should be treated as though you will only get 7 of them to use in your entire written life and you’ll want to save at least one of them for your obituary.


Ben Alpers 10.21.14 at 6:58 pm

When a text reaches a certain age, it ought to be given a semicolonoscopy.


geo 10.21.14 at 7:09 pm

TJ @17: Really now! I say! Humph!


TM 10.21.14 at 7:12 pm

Isn’t that simply how people wrote at the time? And isn’t our own sense of ridicule at such a sentence simply the product of the writing preferences of our time, which are not inherently superior to those of other times? How did his contemporaries judge his grammar?


LFC 10.21.14 at 8:22 pm

from the OP:
It’s a nice question why Henry Bolingbroke doesn’t get more credit for theorizing the benefits of Two Great Parties

J.G.A. Pocock, in The Machiavellian Moment (1975), p.483, refers to “Bolingbroke’s — and very generally the age’s — inability to devise a satisfactory theory of party” — the remark is embedded in a context that wd be too much trouble to try to summarize here. (For a [presumably] different view, H. Mansfield, Statesmanship and Party Government (1965)].


Bloix 10.21.14 at 9:05 pm

Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Marcel Proust:
Those high white curtains which hid from the eyes the bed placed as if in the rear of a sanctuary; the scattering of light silk counterpanes, of quilts with flowers, of embroidered bedspreads, of linen pillowcases, this scattering under which it disappeared in the daytime, as an altar in the month of Mary under festoons and flowers, and which, in the evening, in order to go to bed, I would place cautiously on an armchair where they consented to spend the night; by the bed, the trinity of the glass with blue patterns, the matching sugar bowl, and the decanter (always empty, since the day after my arrival, by order of my aunt who was afraid to see it “spill”), these instruments, as it were, of the cult-almost as sacred as the precious orange blossom liqueur placed near them in a glass phial-,which I would no more have thought of profaning nor even of possibly using for myself than if they had been consecrated ciboria, but which I would examine a long time before undressing, for fear of upsetting them by a false motion; those little crocheted open-work stoles which threw on the backs of the armchair a mantel of white roses that must not have been without thorns since every time I was through reading and wanted to I noticed I remained caught in them; that glass bell on which, isolated from vulgar contacts, the clock was babbling privately for shells come from far away and for an old sentimental flower, but which was so heavy to lift that when the clock stopped, nobody but the clock-maker would have been foolhardy enough to undertake to wind it up; that very white guipure tablecloth which, thrown as an altar runner across the chest of drawers adorned with two vases, a picture of the Savior, and a twig of blessed boxwood made it resemble the Lord’s Table (of which a priedieu, placed there every day, when the room war “done,” finished evoking the idea), but whose frayings always catching in the chinks of the drawers stopped their movement so completely that I could never take out a handkerchief without at once knocking down the picture of the Savior, the sacred vases, the twig of blessed boxwood, and without stumbling and catching hold of the priedieu; finally, that triple layer of little bolting-cloth curtains, of large muslin curtains, and of larger dimity curtains always smiling in their often sunny hawthorn whiteness, but in reality very irritating in their awkwardness and stubbornness in playing around the parallel wooden bars and tangling in one another and getting all in the window as soon as I wanted to open or close it, -a second one being always ready if I succeeded in extricating the first to come to take its place immediately in the cracks as perfectly plugged by them as they would have been by a real hawthorn bush or by nests of swallows that might have had the fancy to settle there, so that this operation, in appearance so simple, of opening or closing my window, I never succeeded in doing without the help of someone in the house; all those things which not only could not answer any of my needs, but were even an impediment however slight, to their satisfaction, which evidently had never been placed there for someone’s use, peopled my room with thoughts somehow personal, with that air of predilection, of having chosen to live there and delighting in it, which, often the trees in a clearing and the flowers on the road side or on old walls have.

James Agee:
A house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence; that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.


Anderson 10.21.14 at 9:30 pm

22: the CUNY Grad Center used to have a poster of Proust’s longest sentence (the one from Sodom & Gomorrah) … diagrammed.

The literature version of the poster with pi to 1 million places.


mattski 10.21.14 at 10:16 pm


How long is it?!


ChrisB 10.21.14 at 10:31 pm

The sentence is 958 words.
A poster of a different Proust sentence – could they have been confused? – is at


John Emerson 10.22.14 at 1:06 am

Strunk and White, Hemingway, and Orwell have put an end to that nonsense, but I miss it greatly.


John Holbo 10.22.14 at 2:13 am

My daughter is writing a school paper and I showed her the Bolingbroke sentence and she said, “oh my god, that’s crazeballs.” Then I was reading her paper over for her and she had a similar sentence: 5 lines long, 4 independent clauses separated by semicolons. “Honey, you wrote your first Bolingbroke!” She hadn’t been conscious of backing into such a complex construction.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.22.14 at 2:46 am

My addiction in parentheses. I have caught myself putting parenthetical phrases inside parenthetical phrases.


ZM 10.22.14 at 3:20 am

jake the antisoshul soshulist,

You might like New Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel if you are so partial to parentheses. I could not make it through when I borrowed it from the library, but it is certainly a very interesting idea. It is told in cantos with multiple parentheses nested inside of each other like babushka dolls making up the whole of each canto.

“Roussel began writing New Impressions of Africa in 1915 while serving in the French Army during the First World War and it took him seventeen years to complete. “It is hard to believe the immense amount of time composition of this kind of verse requires,” he later commented. Mysterious, unnerving, hilarious, haunting, both rigorously logical and dizzyingly sublime, it is truly one of the hidden masterpieces of twentieth-century modernism.

This bilingual edition of New Impressions of Africa presents the original French text and the English poet Mark Ford’s lucid, idiomatic translation on facing pages. It also includes an introduction outlining the poem’s peculiar structure and evolution, notes explaining its literary and historical references, and the fifty-nine illustrations anonymously commissioned by Roussel, via a detective agency, from Henri-A. Zo.”


bad Jim 10.22.14 at 4:58 am

Regarding Trader Joe’s strictures on the use of exclamation points: I set up my company’s first email system using UUCP, which used bang-paths for routing. There was nothing perceptibly untoward in the messages exchanged, but the details of their transmission were comically emphatic.


ZM 10.22.14 at 5:50 am

(Just a query John Holbo – should we keep with jovial punctuation commenting and await a proper OP on political parties and the division of parliament into government and opposition [i thought this was to mirror the Oxford tutorial system where one person was the good person and the other person played devil’s advocate (just in the lower house, mind you, not the upper house where everyone must be upstanding in their reviewing of the legislation proposals from the lower house) and the tutor would be a bit like the speaker maybe?] , because this interesting topic was being discussed just the other day on John Quiggin’s blog and I think we can minimize the influence of parties by having the Governor General choose team members instead of the people elected into parliament)


Bruce Webb 10.22.14 at 10:58 am

“It was a dark and stormy night —- ” etc, etc; etc:, etc–


Agog 10.22.14 at 11:02 am

Ursula K. Le Guin on being a man:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”


PJW 10.22.14 at 11:32 am


jkay 10.22.14 at 8:52 pm

o Aristotle of Athens came a TAD ahead, in
his Athenian Constitution, ISTR.

o You will get no semicolons out of ME,


PaulB 10.22.14 at 11:23 pm

Semicolonials aside, is it normal to call Henry St John “Henry Bolingbroke”? To me Bolingbroke is John of Gaunt’s son.


John Holbo 10.23.14 at 12:14 am

“is it normal to call Henry St John “Henry Bolingbroke”?”

Normally, I just call him ‘Hank’ but, in a public forum that seemed too informal.

Seriously, you are probably right.


Thornton Hall 10.23.14 at 12:38 am

We had a comp lit professor as Treasurer of our Co-Op for two years. That’s what our financial statements looked like.


dr ngo 10.23.14 at 4:50 am

I heard a talk once by the guy who was overseeing the definitive edition of Melville. To make the point that punctuation mattered, he raised the possibility of a comma in the first line of MOBY DICK: “Call me, Ishmael.”


Neville Morley 10.23.14 at 9:16 am

Much too linear to be Thucydidean; this is just a series of independent clauses linked by semi-colons, rather than a complex web of sub-clauses, parentheses, antitheses and participles that, making little sense in a non-inflected language, render attempts at literal translation virtually impossible and positively demand rather than merely permitting great licence to the benighted translator, who might well remark, echoing Leonardi Bruni, on how many sleepness nights would be required for such a task.

Comments on this entry are closed.