Monday, December 30, 2019

Should Authors Re-Think The Semicolon?

I recently read Semicolon:  The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson.  For such a hyped book, I wasn’t thrilled. I should’ve known better – how exciting could such a book really be?

So why the sudden focus on a punctuation mark that most people don’t use or know how to apply properly?

The book’s goals to chart the transformation of a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion is noble, I guess, but do we really care enough to read an entire book about ;?

The lesson learned here?  The author believes grammar rules are needed – so we can violate them.  Her book is more about justification for dismissing language technicalities than it is for praising the semicolon or identifying its appropriate usage.  Here are select passages that may help you rethink your relationship to grammar, particularly the semicolon:

“It’s rough being a stickler for grammar these days,” sighs Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, as if before “these days there was a time when everyone was committed to proper grammar and everyone agreed on what proper grammar constituted.”

Here are some interesting excerpts from Watson’s book:

1.      Self-styled grammar “sticklers,” “snobs,” “nazis,” and “bitches” want so much to get back to that point in the past where the majority of people respected language and understood its nuances, and society at large shared a common understanding of grammar rules.  But that place is a mirage.  There was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated “properly.” It’s important to come to grips with this historical fact, because it influences how we act in the present:  after we nail down some basic punctuation history here through the story of the semicolon, I’ll show that hanging on to the old story about grammar – the mythical story – limits our relationship with language.  It keeps us from seeing, describing, and creating beauty in language that rules can’t comprehend.

2.      For those of you accustomed to thinking about punctuation as subject to rules, it probably sounds odd to suggest that punctuation usage could be subject to shifts in fashion.  One of the virtues of rules would be to insulate us from whims and fancies.  But even the originators of rule-based punctuation’s trendiness.  As we saw, they were conflicted about how best to negotiate the tension between rules and actual usage.  As a result of their examination of usage, grammarians became keen observers of the punctuation whims of writers.

3.      The law is skeletal, a mere naked framework of words, and those words require interpretation for the law to become animate and to act in the world.  Any time interpretation is involved (which really means:  any time a human being gets involved in anything), there is the opportunity for our best and most beautiful qualities to inflect the material we are interpreting – but there is equally the opportunity for our cynicism, our racism, and our little hatreds and bigotries to be  exercised through the application of laws that are at the end of the day inert tools that must be wielded by someone to construct a more or less merciful world.  Any other vision of our laws – any vision in which they are perfect and complete and speak for themselves – is fantasy.

4.      So we need another tactic, whether we think we consider ourselves beginners or advanced.  How do we learn to use English in a way that sticks better and works better than an abstracted list of memorized rules?  And  how do we learn to develop a writing style that’s recognizable, and at the same time master the ability to be flexible with that style as the occasion requires?

5.      But that reviewer of James is correct that uncertainty, ambiguity, and vagueness do put a certain burden on the reader.  Or maybe it’s better to say: they highlight the fact that writing is an exchange between at least two people:  writer and reader, or sometimes writer and the writer’s own future self.  There is nothing wrong with trying to be as precise as possible in your writing, or with trying to be clear; those goals are often productive and have their place.  But I don’t think it’s such a bad thing sometimes to be engaged in the practice of working things out in words, of having a conversation.  Ambiguity can be useful and productive, and it can make some room for new ideas.  It can help the reader create something out of the materials the writer providers.

6.      Still, technology takes even while it gives, and it’s not unreasonable to feel that one of the things it is taking is our ability to stop occasionally, or at least to slow down.  We bob along feeling helpless on a frantic current of light and noise, always on the move, our predicament best depicted in the linear leap forwards of the dash.  The semicolon represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think; it measures time more meditatively than the catchall dash, and it can’t be chucked thoughtlessly into just any sentence in place of just any other mark.

7.      If rules don’t do what they set out to do for us – if rules are just idealizations of language that don’t manage either to help us learn to write well, or to describe why a piece of writing is effective or ineffective – does that mean that rules are totally worthless?  Not necessarily.  In fact, if we can learn to see past rules as the only framework with which we can understand and learn to use language, we might be able to see what purposes rules could really serve.  That is, we can peel away the justification that “rules are really in language” and free ourselves to ask instead, “What good might rules be even if they aren’t strictly necessary or sufficient?”  Rules considered as frameworks within which to work rather than as boundaries marking the outer limits of rhetorical possibility, might spur creativity, just as a poet might find it productive to work within the strictures of the sonnet form.  But we would be making a big mistake to teach that the only “legal” way to write poetry is to write sonnets.  The same goes for punctuation rules.

8.      That love is really for the English language, or for orderliness and organization, or for tradition.  None of these things is a foolish thing to love.  But if we really love English or if we love the sense of structure that grammar provides, or if we love traditions and a sense of shared linguistic practices across generations, we have to look somewhere else to celebrate that devotion; rules will be, just as they always have been, inadequate to form a protective fence around English.

9.      Even if they aren’t the basis by which we read and write, punctuation rules can’t just be unthought as though they never existed int eh first place.  We could not (and perhaps would not want to) go back to a time before there were punctuation rules.  But maybe we can think beyond them now, to develop a new, more functional, more ethical philosophy of punctuation; one that would support a richer way of learning, teaching, using, and loving language.  At the very least, by reflecting on the history of the commas, colon, question marks, and semicolons that dot our written language, we can gain some of the perspective necessary to properly evaluate the virtues and vices of rules.  After all, it’s impossible to confront assumptions that we can’t even see.


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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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