Friday, February 29, 2008


A Sign of Hope

This story made me smile. Someone out there in the real world actually knows how to use a semicolon!

Never mind that the use is inelegant; it's technically correct, unpretentious, and practical.

I'll admit a certain fondness for the semicolon. It does so much more than just legalize the occasional comma splice, break a long list into digestible parts, or signify a wink. It indicates...wait for it...a certain (uh-oh) ambiguity (noooooo!!!) in the connection between ideas. It asks the reader to hold one part of the sentence in suspension while reading the other part. It assumes – brazenly, I know, and often with limited warrant – a certain sophistication in the reader.

It allows for some syncopation of sentence structure, some recognition of the actual flow of words. It facilities the careful and precise delineation of ambiguity, reveling in what lesser minds would consider a contradiction. Used correctly, it's refreshing.

(Yes, I know, semicolons don't actually revel. As an exasperated ex-girlfriend once told me, it's a &^%$%& metaphor.)

Semicolons are so much more interesting than colons. Colons, to me, are a sort of grammatical goose-step. This: is. They take 'declarative' to another level; they're almost dictatorial. Semicolons, like the winks they've come to signify, assume a subtler shared meaning, almost a confidence between writer and reader.

(And don't even get me started on bullet points.)

I'll admit having built up my fair share of linguistic pet peeves over the years. "Irregardless" isn't a word. "A whole nother" makes my flesh crawl. And I think there's a circle of hell reserved for people who routinely start sentences with the words "Being that..."

But semicolons, properly used, still bring a smile. They're linguistic underdogs, and it's fun to see them win.

What's your favorite linguistic underdog?

The ellipsis...there are so many times that one thought just leads into another one...and there are also the times in which you just want to cut right to the chase and avoid any extraneous wording. That's also a case made for an ellipsis.

so what kind of geeks are we that we have our favorite punctuation marks?
I was just teaching a poem by Frank Bidart, who is the master of underdog punctuation: he uses semicolon-dash, colon-dash, dash-semicolon, and even a striking comma inside punctuation marks. I have a certain fondness for the nearly obsolete semicolon-dash;--so eloquently defended by Nicholson Baker in his essay on the history of punctuation!

I use too many semicolons, though.
Um, my comment makes it look as though a "striking comma" is a particular kind of comma; I really meant "even, strikingly, a comma inside punctuation marks."
The em dash! I love it! My friend and I are both ABD in English and taking a placement seminar now to help prepare for going on the market in the Fall. As we workshopped our dissertation abstracts yesterday, she accused me of being "dash happy"-a charge I couldn't deny! But then, imagine my surprise, to find her completely abusing the semi-colon in her abstract...4 times in one paragraph! When I called her on it, she said:

"I love the semicolon. A period and a comma. It's like a party in my head!"

Just too funny not to share :)
Irregardless is not a word? Piffle. So it's not a word in your idiolect. :-)

And--ahem--aren't words as words (words qua words?) supposed to be italicized? Or were all those ruler-beatings I received in English class for naught?
"A whole nother" is one of my favorite underdogs, actually.

Hear me out.

In Shakespeare, you'll frequently hear "nuncle" for uncle. Go back further, and you have "nadder" instead of adder. The history of the language is filled with words that used to start with an N but don't anymore because that N moved from the word to the article "a nadder" to "an adder" or vice versa from "mine uncle" to "my nuncle".

A whole nother is an unself conscious participant in that tradition, so I like it, even though it sounds wrong to anyone whose primary language is written English.
I admit that punctuation is not a fetish of mine. (Think about that for a while.) However, I am extremely fond of the subjunctive. Were it only the case that people used it properly!
Too few schoolteachers actually know how to use or explain marks like the semicolon. But then again, there might be some sort of Vygotskyan "zone of proximal readiness" thing that prevents children from absorbing that particular rule. But this thread needn't be solely about punctuation marks--right?

From where I sit grading freshman comp essays, I feel that a slew of simple English words suffer from the silly, unjustified prejudice that wants a long, fancy-sounding, latinate word in place of every short Anglo-Saxonish one. In particular, I'll take my stand for but.

Apparently, most kids are taught to never begin a sentence with and or but, but many of our best writers freely do so. MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" has whole paragraphs that start with it.
Does it "facilities the careful and precise delineation of ambiguity" or does it "facilitate" the above?
Anyone else notice the semi-colon valorized by the NYT is conspicuously missing from the very article celebrating it?

Ironic, no?

FYI, here's a fun test to find out which punctuation mark you are:

I'm an ellipsis! But I sure do adore the semi-colon!
Em-dash. I also like ellipses when I'm implying that there's a lot more to say about a subject, but I don't have space in this area, so the reader can go ahead and act like I said it without interrupting the flow.
I too *heart* the semicolon.

My pet peeve is the when people say less when they mean fewer.
My girlfriend's pet peeve is the phrase "most unique".

My pet peeve is when the colon, of which I'm a fan, unlike DD, is used to announce a list after a verb. I like: science, music, chocolate, and journal articles that are accepted without revisions. Please, fellow writers, only put a colon after a noun.

DD, I'm glad that you managed to use a semicolon somewhere in the post. I was getting worried there for awhile.
I am both over semicolonic and excessively dashy. I often have to squint at my paragraphs to see that I've overused the latter.

I hate the business-speak tendency to make nouns into verbs. "Let's calendar that," "I think we should dialog about that . . ." Blech.

And I really like "dis," because it's a slang word that actually filled a need--a far more succinct way to say "act disrespectfully toward."

I can't stop myself. I have read/heard "take it for granite" many times, and it almost works. "Begs the question" meaning "makes one want to ask" rather than referring to the fallacy also bugs, but I really should get over that.
Yeah, I'm a semicolon girl. It's been my favorite since I learned how to use it in my sophomore year of high school. I'm teased for it and known for it; I *heart* all things semicolon. ;-)
I love a good dash--or two, or three. Like AcadeMama, I was once accused (by my high school A.P. English teacher) of abusing dashes. Far better to abuse dashes, I thought, than cocaine.
Nice article! But your link is not working properly, I found that you've added the http:// two times in your link. Please check it. I like full stop more than anything, so we can windup the matter and go back to our work.
business card
My mind apparently works differently than those quoted in the article. I saw the ad on the subway just this morning, and my first thought wasn't 'oh gee, correct semi-colon use, how cool is that.'

No, my first thought was 'throw away the paper?' You see, NYC is a recycling city, and I couldn't believe they would suggest throwing away the paper rather than recycling. Yes, I understood that the ad was about picking up one's garbage, but still...recycle people, recycle!

And I wrote this without a single semi-colon, but I couldn't resist an ellipsis.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?