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February 18, 2008 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Slow news day: One properly used semicolon inspires paroxysms of joy in the NYT.
posted by GrammarMoses (76 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Semicolons hopelessly outdated; film at 11.
posted by tepidmonkey at 3:23 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


;)
posted by tapeguy at 3:26 PM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Eponysterical!
posted by signalnine at 3:27 PM on February 18, 2008


.
posted by waraw at 3:28 PM on February 18, 2008


When I read this earlier today I was surprised that the sentence which inspired so much joy encouraged commuters to throw away their newspapers instead of recycling them.
posted by stopgap at 3:28 PM on February 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:29 PM on February 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Is it outdated? I use it all the time.

And, doesn't NY waste management handle all recycling...?
posted by Brocktoon at 3:30 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wasn't expecting an article about semicolons to include Noam Chomsky attacking the Bush administration.
posted by bobo123 at 3:31 PM on February 18, 2008 [13 favorites]


Bets are open to see if the article makes the NYT Corrections section.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:32 PM on February 18, 2008


It's not outdated, I was being ironic. Did you know that in Greek the semicolon fulfills the function of the question mark;
posted by tepidmonkey at 3:32 PM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never considered the semicolon to particularly beleaguered. God knows I use it enough for everyone.
posted by Iridic at 3:34 PM on February 18, 2008


The semicolon used to annoy me more than I should admit but lately I've made my peace with it.
posted by Kattullus at 3:36 PM on February 18, 2008


Nice use of the colon; I see what you did, there.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:37 PM on February 18, 2008


the sentence which inspired so much joy encouraged commuters to throw away their newspapers instead of recycling them

Mais oui. This way each passenger has to buy their own copy of the paper.
posted by GrammarMoses at 3:39 PM on February 18, 2008


(Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

Ah HA HA HAHAHAHA! [gasp]; HA HAHAHAHA.

OH! You made a funny with the words! You are clever!

*sobs uncontrollably*
posted by quin at 3:42 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, the author, Sam Roberts, perhaps having read too many New Yorker articles, uses the comma, that cute, ubiquitous, veritable Paris Hilton of punctuation marks, far too fucking much.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:42 PM on February 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


Iridic - I'll trade you an extra "o" for one of those semicolons...
posted by rush at 3:44 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's nice to see people enjoyng a semicolon for once. I thought it funny that the article quoted Vonnegut, as he notoriously disliked semicolons. I hadn't ever given it much thought, but I had no idea the semicolon was so controversial

I'm quite fond of them myself; they impart the feeling of a subtle break that isn't as fleeting as a comma, nor as final as a period.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


"And what did Kurt Vonnegut teach me about so-called creative writing? Not a whole lot, but I was crazy about him. He said that I was a good writer, except that I used too many semicolons; I still do, and Vonnegut is at present advising everyone against using semicolons at all. In his new autobiography, A Man Without a Country, he writes: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite herm-aphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

"In my case, I used to argue with him, semicolons reflect my appreciation of Dickens, and of Dickens’s long, complicated sentences in particular — and of long, plotted novels in general — to which Kurt usually responded by smiling benevolently, or patting me on top of my head. (I’m short, Vonnegut is tall; more germane to our argument, my novels are long, his are relatively brief.)"

John Irving on Kurt Vonnegut on semi-colons
posted by humannaire at 3:49 PM on February 18, 2008 [12 favorites]


In 2004, a court in San Francisco 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.

Fucking A.
posted by brundlefly at 3:57 PM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,”

Kurt Vonnegut is a brilliant writer and an astute observer of the human condition. However, blowing one’s head off with a double barreled shotgun is a rather different sort of punctuation than a period.
Having lived through the saturation bombing of Dresden, I can see how one might be rather unimpressed by the discharge of one firearm.
I suspect though his advice on semicolons is more muted than perhaps necessary.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 4:01 PM on February 18, 2008


Rush - Check your mail.
posted by Iridic at 4:02 PM on February 18, 2008


I'm all for the semicolon, but I'll tell you, from bitter experience, that a semicolonic is useless.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:02 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the semi-colon's useful; it's the dash that's not.

Especially that latenineteenthcentury dash that's about eight hyphens long.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:07 PM on February 18, 2008


.
posted by mazola at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2008


Are you talking about the em or the en dash? Or the hyphen? These are all, both gramatically and typographically, very different things. Each is also particularly useful.
posted by luriete at 4:10 PM on February 18, 2008


Here in Phoenix I designed plenty of signage with correct punctuation (including semicolons); where's my NYT writeup?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2008


I wasn't expecting an article about semicolons to include Noam Chomsky attacking the Bush administration.

Well, this is MetaFilter....
posted by the_bone at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2008


luriete, I was sort of joking. I've been reading some bad 19th century prose and it seems that everywhere they couldn't think of a word to join things together they throw in this monstrosity----------

I've even seen a period followed by a dash.---------

What does that even mean?
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:21 PM on February 18, 2008


I used to have semicolon cancer; now excised, it no longer threatens my health.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 4:50 PM on February 18, 2008


Chomsky is like a pasty, old Teddy Ruxpin running on an Al Franken cassette.
posted by basicchannel at 4:51 PM on February 18, 2008


Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as 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.

OK, yeah.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 4:56 PM on February 18, 2008


On the other hand, the author, Sam Roberts, perhaps having read too many New Yorker articles, uses the comma, that cute, ubiquitous, veritable Paris Hilton of punctuation marks, far too fucking much.

Also guilty as charged; but man I love me some semi-colons. *fondles*

Though I agree that a colon would have been better for that particular sentence.
posted by jokeefe at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


O-Chyme:
Is "signage" really a word?
My mother would beat me when I used it in casual conversation.
posted by Dizzy at 5:14 PM on February 18, 2008


(Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

Ah HA HA HAHAHAHA! [gasp]; HA HAHAHAHA.

OH! You made a funny with the words! You are clever!

*sobs uncontrollably*
posted by quin at 6:42 PM on February 18 [+] [!]

You missed the opportunity to say, "Oh, you slay me."

and
I wasn't expecting an article about semicolons to include Noam Chomsky attacking the Bush administration.

Well, this is MetaFilter....
posted by the_bone at 7:16 PM on February 18 [+] [!]


And this WAS in The New York Times.
posted by etaoin at 5:22 PM on February 18, 2008


I like semicolons—and dashes, too.

I didn't like the last sentence of the article:

The semicolon, befittingly, symbolizes a wink.

What the hell's wrong with "fittingly"?
posted by languagehat at 5:24 PM on February 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


"People have ... even been put to death because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers"

I can't believe the article let that hang out there without so much as a hint of explanation.
posted by msbrauer at 5:35 PM on February 18, 2008


Perfectly fitting, I would say.
posted by jokeefe at 5:44 PM on February 18, 2008


I don't know what sonic meat machine's super-long-dash is named, but I've read style guides which say it should be about triple the length of an em-dash. It's not an em-dash, an en-dash, or a hyphen.

I've seen it (or its cousin) used to mark elision of names, as in "Yesterday, on the advice of Dr. M———, we blah blah blah". Or cursing.
posted by hattifattener at 5:48 PM on February 18, 2008


The problem with semicolons is that they're too damn useful. Addictive even. So I've mostly weaned myself off them. One per thousand words at the most. And then only if there's no other way of doing it.
posted by Mocata at 5:55 PM on February 18, 2008


I enjoy it most when it is pronounced in the Spanish fashion, seh-mee-caul-awn.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:57 PM on February 18, 2008


You will all be participating in National Grammar Day, yes?
posted by etaoin at 6:15 PM on February 18, 2008


I guess I'm the only one, but I don't get it.

Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone
vs.
Please put it in a trash can that’s good news for everyone

A can is good news for everyone? Sorry, I need to go reboot myself after reading this story.
posted by crapmatic at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2008


The upper one indicates that the act of putting it in a trash can is good news for everyone but the lower one says that it's the trash can that is the good news.
posted by Kattullus at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2008


I've even seen a period followed by a dash.---------

Quite possibly a bad attack of dramatic punctuation. Cue long pause.

I've occasionally had to explain to students what "d---!" means. "Go to the d---l!" seems a little more self-explanatory.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:30 PM on February 18, 2008


crapmatic, the sign refers specifically to newspapers. The explicit version would be, "Please put your newspaper in a trash can; your newspaper in a trash can is good news for everyone."
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 6:40 PM on February 18, 2008


Hey, I didn't even know there was a National Punctuation Day.

*marks calendar, employing many exclamation points*
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:53 PM on February 18, 2008


Punctuation is one of the great pleasures of modern life.

Is "signage" really a word?

Aye, very much so.
posted by cortex at 7:04 PM on February 18, 2008


In Defence of the Great Semicolon:
A semicolon’s use is primarily to separate major clauses within sentences. Due to our education, we usually tend to think of a sentence as holding only one major clause and numerous minor clauses within that; this is not necessarily true.

A semicolon should be broadly used as both a list separator and a separator of major clauses in sentences. A good piece of advice may be this: if one inserts a semicolon as a clause separator as opposed to the former list separator, then one should be able to test it by replacing it momentarily with a full stop and seeing whether or not it still makes sense. The reason this works is because both semicolons and full stops can be used to separate major clauses. However, generally for the sake of clear writing, there is scope for semicolons so as to avoid short, fragmented and seemingly unconnected sentences.
posted by stbalbach at 7:17 PM on February 18, 2008


cont..
Let us now consider a number of sound examples. If I were to write the following:

The party finally ended at two; Mary and John left soon after.

…then I would still make sense writing:

The party finally ended at two. Mary and John left soon after.

There is also confusion with positions of commas and semicolons as individual clause separators. If I were to write:

I didn’t believe him; and, I could tell he was deliberately lying.

…then I would have applied the semicolon in a sensible manner. Let us check:

I didn’t believe him. And, I could tell he was deliberately lying.

Yes indeed, it still makes sense. However, semicolon abusers and posers may well write this:

I didn’t believe him, and; I could tell he was deliberately lying.

…which makes absolutely no sense, when you consider it to in effect mean:

I didn’t believe him, and. I could tell he was deliberately lying.
posted by stbalbach at 7:18 PM on February 18, 2008


I wasn't expecting an article about semicolons
Nobody expects an article about semicolons. Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and punctuation marks. Punctuation marks and surprise. Our TWO weapons are surprise and punctuation marks...and words. Our THREE weapons are surprise and punctuation marks and words...and an almost fanatical devotion to grammar. Our four weapons...no...amongst our weapons...in our weaponry.

I'll come in again in another thread.
posted by forrest at 7:32 PM on February 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


Did anyone else think the entire article was condescending? Who says a semi-decent writer can't go work for the city transit's marketing department? I've seen English majors at worse jobs. Like the NYT.

Also, I'm certainly no linguist, but can we retire the word "sniffed" as an indicator of speech? I don't want to think of Noam Chomsky motherfucking sniffing and words coming out. Maybe it's just me.
posted by naju at 7:50 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm one of the only people I know who routinely overuses semicolons and dashes. This is my kind of post!
posted by danb at 7:57 PM on February 18, 2008


Semi-cologne.
posted by bwg at 8:17 PM on February 18, 2008


There is nothing a semicolon can do that a period can't do better.
posted by JWright at 8:18 PM on February 18, 2008


Scott E. Fahlman wants to know what happened to the -)
posted by tellurian at 8:51 PM on February 18, 2008


stbalbach:
"I didn’t believe him. And, I could tell he was deliberately lying.

Yes indeed, it still makes sense.
"

Why would someone writing about the elegance of the semicolon claim that this makes sense? If I were proofreading his sentence I would remove the "and." It shouldn't stand by itself at the beginning of an independent clause, no matter what the separator is. Even if you accept its position there, the comma after is redundant and awkward and seems like it's breaking some rule. At the beginning of the passage, I was sure he was going to revise the sentence to "I didn’t believe him; I could tell he was deliberately lying." I can't envision anybody being moved by his article to start using semicolons.

Also, there's this awkward abuse of viz.:

The semicolon has been shunned for generations as an ugly and useless mark. Even a man whom I admire greatly, the great novelist and essayist George Orwell, took to renouncing the great mark: he once noted in a letter to a friend roughly viz. “I have recently completed a novel [which one, I do not remember] without using once semicolon, since it is an ugly and unnecessary device”.

I don't know who the blog author is, but he makes something of a fool of himself by writing with stilted style and messing it up. Is he always so pretentious, or just when he's trying to establish credibility for his claims about the rules of written English?
posted by lostburner at 8:58 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


There is nothing a semicolon can do that a period can't do better.

Tell that to a C coder.
posted by cortex at 9:41 PM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I love semi-colons; they give me so much joy.
posted by popechunk at 9:43 PM on February 18, 2008


Oh, I love, love, love that they had to correct the title of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Of all things, they didn't think to check that?
posted by maryn at 9:46 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


naju: I don't want to think of Noam Chomsky motherfucking sniffing and words coming out. Maybe it's just me.

No, it's not just you. That jumped out at me too. I find it particularly annoying that someone has to insert their little judgement of Chomsky (oh, he's such a whiner) when it should be pretty clear to anyone who has ever listened to him interviewed that his mode of speech doesn't have anything to do with sniffing.
posted by ssg at 9:59 PM on February 18, 2008


The semi-colon is my most favorite punctuation mark.
posted by jb at 10:23 PM on February 18, 2008


I may be wrong, but I believe that really long dash means "redacted", as in the example above, where it is used in place of a person's last name (beyond the first letter.)
posted by davejay at 11:48 PM on February 18, 2008


My favorite use of a dash is when it represents approaching profundity; the Germans call this a "Gedankenschtricht," I think.

Thus Nietzsche:
"It is more comfortable to follow one's conscience than one's reason: for it offers an excuse and alleviation if what we undertake miscarries--which is why there are always so many conscientious people and so few reasonable ones."
posted by nasreddin at 12:18 AM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Either you holdin'
Or ya half-ass like semi-colon."

-Method Man
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:30 AM on February 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


Who says a semi-decent writer can't go work for the city transit's marketing department? I've seen English majors at worse jobs.

You, sir, are a liar of the most flagrant variety! Such balderdash, such inexcusable poppycock, I have never heard in my life.

It is well known, even among the lower uneducated classes such as the one to which you doubtless belong, that only the very finest jobs are accorded to English Majors.

Ah, I still fondly remember the day when I received my B.A., all fresh-faced and turgid with knowledge! To be so pink of cheek and green of brain once more! Few memories are fonder to me than the moment when the dean of my college handed me my diploma, a glass of fine cognac, and a feather (symbolizing the whimsical free spirit of the proper gentleman English Major!). He commanded his manservant (a piddling economics major, of course) to open the venerated wooden Chest Of Occupations, and I drew out a slip which had inscribed upon it my future profession. "Afficionado (general)," it read, "Starting Salary: $400,000 per annum."

Not the most lucrative of professions given to my kind, I suppose, but it would do. I looked at my dean with a twinkle in my eye, and he twinkled in return. "Bully!" I cried.

"Bully!" he responded.

"Bully!" I cried once more (for emphasis).

Ah, to be young again!
posted by Greg Nog at 5:59 AM on February 19, 2008 [7 favorites]


Amateurs, the lot of you. Why, I myself have mastered the use of the hemicolon, the exsanguination mark*, and even the extemporaneous squirly brackets.

I'd show you all, but I seem to have forgotten my Gentleman's Unicode Entry Hand-Manual for the Interconnected Webs. I shall return after I have located this tome, and the properly punctuated rejoicing shall commence.

*Quite honestly, this particular sigil is not oft used. However, while it is posited that the semicolon has on occasion saved a life, the exsanguination mark invariably signals the imminent end of one.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:28 AM on February 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


naju: I don't want to think of Noam Chomsky motherfucking sniffing and words coming out. Maybe it's just me.

I think it's fine to write about people smiling, grinning, laughing, winking, shrugging, coughing or even sniffing sentences. It's a compact way to indicate body-language.
posted by Drexen at 8:30 AM on February 19, 2008


Colorless Noam Chomsky sniffs motherfucking?
posted by cortex at 8:33 AM on February 19, 2008


If I were to write:
I didn’t believe him; and, I could tell he was deliberately lying.
…then I would have applied the semicolon in a sensible manner.
posted by stbalbach


No. A semicolon is used to separate independent clauses having a close relationship. It may be replaced by a comma before (not after) a conjunction, or a full stop, thus:

I didn't believe him; I could tell he was deliberately lying.
I didn't believe him, and I could tell he was deliberately lying.
I didn't believe him. I could tell he was deliberately lying.

Don't use the conjunction and the semicolon together.
Don't use the comma after the conjunction.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:25 AM on February 19, 2008


Random thought: we don't see enough outlier punctuation in angry outbursts, I think. If people can abuse commas, elipses, exclamation marks, why not trot out some of these other fellows while they're at it? Throw some em and en dashes into a tearstained myspace breakup letter; sprinkle colons throughout your letter to the editor; open but do not close (or close yet unopened) parentheses and brackets: all these would liven up the bottom quartile of the lettered world.

Or, to put it another way:

WHAT;
THE:
¡FUCK!
MATT—
posted by cortex at 11:23 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


plato told

him:he couldn't
believe it(jesus

told him;he
wouldn't believe
it)lao

tsze
certainly told
him,and general
(yes

mam)
sherman;
and even
(believe it
or

not)you
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn't believe it,no

sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth

avenue
el;in the top of his head:to tell

him
posted by languagehat at 11:48 AM on February 19, 2008


The fact that there are 70+ comments about the semi-colon further endears me to Metafilter.
posted by kamikazegopher at 1:33 PM on February 19, 2008


Amen, kamikazegopher.

Bonus fun argument fact: this thread contains seven comments making use of the dashified "semi-colon" rendering, a significant but minority position compared with the dashless "semicolon" that I personally favor.

(My rough count is about 23 separate comments with independent uses—that's excluding quotations of previous comments or multiple instances within one comment. I also didn't check against usernames in either case, so it could be that the dashless folks just commented several times. Someone else can try harder.)
posted by cortex at 1:48 PM on February 19, 2008


You know this had to happen:
Correction: February 19, 2008
An article in some editions on Monday about a New York City Transit employee’s deft use of the semicolon in a public service placard was less deft in its punctuation of the title of a book by Lynne Truss, who called the placard a “lovely example” of proper punctuation. The title of the book is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” — not “Eats Shoots & Leaves.” (The subtitle of Ms. Truss’s book is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”)
Grammar Ninjas: 1
NYT: 0
posted by Mr. Gunn at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2008


Semicolon Meat Loaf [pdf]
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:06 PM on February 19, 2008


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