Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Semicolons; Do I Use Them Correctly?

I’ve never thought about that (okay that’s a lie) but after reading this I do wonder more
From the New York Tims City Room blog

Guess what I saw in the subway the other day? It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train. “Please put it in a trash can,” readers are reminded.

After which an erudite writer in the New York City Transit’s marketing and service information department inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads: “that’s good news for everyone.” A semicolon? All right, go ahead, ask. What’s the big deal?

Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, because they signal something New Yorkers rarely do.

Frank McCourt, the author and former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, describes the semicolon as the yellow traffic light of a New York sentence. In response, most New Yorkers accelerate; they don’t pause to contemplate.

In literature and journalism, much less advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.

Today, we prefer shorter sentences without, as the style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.

One respondent to a Financial Times essay on punctuation not long ago went so far as to suggest that the semicolon was anti-American. Why? Because it “presumes that the reader has no more immediately satisfying option than allowing the writer to finish his thought.”

“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “Old age is more like a semicolon.”

New York City public schools are supposed to introduce semicolons in the third grade. Neil Neches, a 55-year-old writer for New York City Transit, the man who inserted the semicolon, attended public school in Brooklyn and majored in English at Brooklyn College. But, let’s be frank: Some people don’t use semicolons because they never learned how.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

But the rules of grammar are routinely violated on both sides of the law.

People have lost fortunes, even been put to death, because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers. Just a couple of years ago, a court rejected a conservative group’s challenge to a statute allowing gay marriage, because the operative phrases were separated incorrectly by a semicolon instead of by the proper conjunction.

Some writers complain that semicolons are subversively ambiguous, that they vaguely imply a connection between two statements without having to specify what that connection is.

A New York writer scolded The Financial Times: “I submit to you that we care more about New Orleans, Iraq and what backpack our kids need for school” than about semicolons. “What do you think we are?” the writer asked. “Editors?”

Or linguists? Speaking of which, Louis Menand, the Harvard English professor, pronounced the subway poster’s use of the semicolon to be “impeccable.”

Blogging about “grace notes from underground,” Geoffrey Nunberg praised the “burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places.”

Noam Chomsky sniffed, “I suppose Bush would claim it’s the effect of No Child Left Behind.”

New York City Transit’s uplifting agenda notwithstanding, e-mails, text messaging and computer games may jeopardize the last vestiges of semicolons. They still live on, though, in emoticons, those graphic emblems of our grins, grimaces and other facial expressions.

What does the semicolon symbolize? A wink.

Oh, I get it ;)

(image from

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