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Monday, June 23, 2008

The disuse seems a worse evil

Paul Collins is my favorite skeptic of the decline narrative, and he's in good form in this Slate article about the decline of the semicolon:
Yet in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe declared himself "mortified" by printers once again using too many semicolons. Poe may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon's popularity. By 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan could boast of "The rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. ... The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon."

1865? But surely that's a century off: Isn't modern life to blame?

One of my favorite lesson plans for University Writing is to have the students diagnose their "compulsive sentences": what's the sentence structure that you over-use because you've gotten good results from it in the past? Everyone has to find an example of the structure which works well in a paper and an example of where it works less well. They also have to explain why they use it--not in some Freudian way, but just in a 'this is how my syntax reflects my thinking' kind of way.

The lesson always gets wonderful, rich results at all levels of sentence complexity. We've discussed the over-use of "in effect," "indeed," and "thus" as transition words which fake the work of actually explaining the connection between ideas. "Furthermore" is another usual suspect. One student noticed that she often began sentences in her conclusions with the phrase, "it is impossible to say" because she wasn't sure what types of statements actually belonged in conclusions. I asked another student why he joined unconnected clauses with semicolons in every paragraph. He said he had heard the semicolon was the way to look smart.

I like to tell them about my compulsive sentence from high school. My friend Paige and I were enamored of the 'clause; rather, clause' structure and tried to fit into all the papers we wrote. When we had to co-author a policy paper for Model UN, we labored over where to best set our jewel. In an inspired moment, we changed the font size for that single sentence to 12.5.

"I don't even know why we did that," I say, "because the sentence was so awesome that they would have noticed it anyway."

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Blogger Meg on Mon Jun 23, 09:18:00 PM:
As I'm sure you are aware, I need that lesson. "Even so..." "Even though...." Help!!

I think of you every single time I use a semi-colon because I remember how much you used to like them. I always wonder why I don't use them more, but the situation doesn't seem to present itself often. It is a lovely mark, though.
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 24, 04:31:00 PM:
It says a lot whether the problem in your reading and writing is too many semicolons or too few. When I started reading Collins's article, I expected the mainstream narrative of semicolon debauchery to be an overabundance of vague thinking; the natural conclusion of the self-esteem era, where you needn't be concise or lucid if you are being real. But I guess if I peek over my New York Review of Books, there is a world of crappy writing where, I agree, thoughts are often not complicated enough to need semicolons.

My own pathological sentences are ones where my voice evaporates into vague smog, often by means of meaning-obfuscating semicolons. William Zinsser advises that using short sentences without copious semicolons encourages you to be clear in your thinking and makes your writing more enjoyable to read. If you're writing well in other ways, I think that's usually true. If not, short sentences won't help and copious semicolons won't hurt, right?
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Jun 24, 08:56:00 PM:
When I tutor high school students for the SAT, which now includes a grammar section, I almost always devote a thorough teaching moment to the semicolon. I teach it so thoroughly because STUDENTS WANT ME TO. Most students have no idea how to use semicolons, but are genuinely curious about them. Subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, parallel construction -- none of these command the same mystique. I teach semicolons alongside conjunctions. A semicolon is more like an "and" than like a comma; it's a link, a correlation strengthener. I have noticed with one student in particular that his fascination with this form of punctuation actually impedes his understanding of it. He's so trigger happy to put semicolons in his papers that he doesn't take the time to understand how to use them.

My dad's advice on this topic has always been to avoid semicolons, not because you don't know how to use them, but because no one else knows what the hell they mean. It's a fair point.

I'm waiting for our nerd soul-searching of the rhetorical hyphen--punctuation that, as far as I can tell, is a snappier comma. I abuse it shamelessly... and await Paul Collins'/Alice's remarks.

I like semi-colons because the trend towards short snappy sentences annoys me slightly. I think that the sassy, self-congratulatory tone of the short sentence is rarely backed by the insight the sentence proffers. Instead of feeling enlightened, or amused, or engaged in a fun conversation, I feel I'm stuck reading this stop. Start. Stop. Think about it. Be impressed with my boldness. writer's voice that sends me away from new fiction and back to my check list of 19th Century French writers I haven't gotten around to reading yet.

Or whatever. You get the idea. Or not.
Blogger Tove on Wed Jul 16, 06:39:00 PM:
I am a huge proponent of the semicolon, perhaps because I prefer the long-winded sentences to the concise "sound" bites. My father, when red-penciling my reports, was not such a fan, and it was (yet another) source of ongoing contention we had. Awww, memories.

There was also a brief article in the NYTimes on the semicolon(, ending with the cute comment that the semicolon might be on its way out, but it will live on in emotocons within the texting community.