Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

The Art of Punctuation

From the cover of Semicolon (Ecco)
Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson (Ecco, 224 pp., $19.99)

Each of us has his or her own history with punctuation. For the first 18 or so years of my life I attempted to get by with as little of it as possible. This meant that I availed myself of three items of punctuation, and three only: capital letters at the beginning of sentences, periods and occasionally question marks at their close. I viewed anything more exotic as a minefield of potential error, easily caught by disapproving teachers, to my embarrassment and ultimate degradation. In college, I hesitatingly began to make use of commas, chiefly after introductory clauses. I soon acquired the knowledge that the colon stood for “as follows,” and would occasionally boldly slip one into one of my student compositions. Not long after college the dash came as a pleasing surprise to me — up there with the discovery of oysters, if not giving as much pleasure as the discovery of sex.

I don’t believe I used my first semicolon until the age of 24 or so, and then I didn’t use it confidently until a good while later, even though I had begun publishing in magazines at 22. To begin with, there was the appearance of the damn creature; with its period sitting atop a comma, it looked as if it had drifted over from Japanese or some other Asian language. The short-story writer Donald Barthelme, quoted in Cecelia Watson’s book Semicolon, described the semicolon as “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s body.” In the standard definition a semicolon is a stop of greater emphasis and duration than that of a comma but less than that of a period. A bit vague, hazy, this, is it not? “Do not use semicolons” was Kurt Vonnegut’s position on the matter. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Semicolons — who needed them? In time I came to learn, I did. In my most recent composition for publication, a piece of 2,500 words, I note that I used no fewer than seven semicolons; and seven, or one every 350 or so words, seems, if I may say so, a lot, though this is a pittance next to Herman Melville, who, according to Ms. Watson, used more than 4,000 of them in Moby-Dick, or one roughly every 52 words.

Punctuation is perhaps one-tenth rule and nine-tenths art. In that portion that is controlled by art, writers will differ, sometimes radically. The art of punctuation is the art of rhythm, for punctuation’s second function, after its first function of helping to establish clarity, is to set the rhythm of sentences. Rhythm in prose, it turns out, is highly individual, for nearly everyone not only marches but writes to the beat of a different drummer.

Mark Twain, Cecelia Watson reports, went bonkers when the English proofreaders at the publishing firm of Chatto & Windus fiddled with his punctuation, and resented the time he had to spend “in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.” Punctuation is a highly personal matter. If a writer’s style reflects how he sees the world, his punctuation records how he hears its beat.

In Semicolon Cecelia Watson provides a brief history of the origin and ultimate acceptance of the semicolon. She offers interesting instances of confusions caused by misplaced or misconstrued or absent semicolons. In one instance in 1900 this entailed at what times liquor might be served in Fall River, Mass.; and in another, in 1927 in New Jersey, a man named Salvatore Merra was wrongly executed because of the want of a semicolon in a jury’s sentencing — a tragic case, as Ms. Watson writes, of punctuation as “a matter of life and death.” She also provides brief accounts on the semicolonic habits of such writers as Irvine Welsh and Rebecca Solnit and Raymond Chandler as well as of Martin Luther King Jr., and somewhat longer ones on those of Melville and Henry James.

Cecelia Watson describes herself as a “punctuation theorist.” She is enamored of what she considers the creative use of semicolons, and provides a few examples that I must confess I found less than stirring. She attacks David Foster Wallace for insisting, in an essay he wrote called “American Usage,” on the necessity of using Standard Written English as a passport to negotiating and gaining acceptance in the wider world. “Where Wallace sees high moral ground lush with the fruits of knowledge,” she writes, “I see a desolate valley in which the pleasures of ‘speaking properly’ and following rules have choked out the very basic ethical principle of giving a sh[**] about what other people have to say.”

Rules turn out to be Cecelia Watson’s bête noire. In the middle of her book she questions the authority of The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, H. W. Fowler, and others, writing that “it’s fair to ask why we consider these books authoritative, and if there might not be some better way to assess our writing rather than through their dicta.” She finds rules inhibiting, if not binding, a brake on creativity. In an interview in Longreads about her book she recounts how rule-bound she herself once was, pedantic and snobbish into the bargain, and expresses her hope that those who read her book will “find themselves maybe starting to be more generous in communicating with other people. In terms of the book that would be really, in my opinion, the thing that would make me happiest.”

To decry another for splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, being unaware of the distinction between “uninterested” and “disinterested,” not knowing when to use “who” and when “whom,” and much more in the same line would be, in Cecelia Watson’s view, pedantic, not to say snobbishly cruel. I would myself say that it depends who is guilty of these lapses. If it is a foreign speaker of English, if it is a young person without the benefit of much schooling, if it is an older person without pretensions to being cultured, she is of course correct. But if it is someone who has those pretensions, someone who earns his or her living by the use of language — a television or print journalist, a scholar or critic, an author of books — then I would disagree. I have no hesitation, for that reason, in noting that Ms. Watson doesn’t seem to be aware of the distinction between the words “farther” and “further,” is not as alive to cliché as a serious writer ought to be, and should dispense with the useless academic phrase “in terms of.” She ought also to be disabused of the mistaken assumption that using the four-letter words that begin with “f” and “s” makes her writing seem more attractively earthy.

As for rules, some are more valuable than others. Take that most school-marmish among them, that of never ending a sentence with a preposition. Winston Churchill mocked it, writing, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” The rule has been violated by no lesser eminences than Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and John Milton. Yet it is not without value. A sound principle — a rule, if you prefer — in writing is to attempt to begin and end sentences on strong words, and prepositions are rarely strong words, so where possible it can only improve one’s writing to avoid ending sentences with them.

On the matter of rules, here is a sentence I used to set out before students in a course I taught called “Advanced Prose Composition”: “Hopefully, the professor will be able to seriously take the work on which I am presently engaged, which is, I believe, rather unique.” The meaning of the sentence is clear enough, though it contains four mistakes. “Hopefully” is an adverb without a verb to modify; “to seriously take” is a split infinitive; “presently” doesn’t mean “currently”; and uniqueness, like pregnancy, doesn’t allow for qualification. But if the meaning is clear, I would ask students, why bother eliminating these mistakes? The answer is because not to do so is to risk offending people who know better, the educated, a small group, to be sure, some would even say an endangered species, but one that tends to be touchy about such matters. In writing as in just about everything else, while at it, what the hell, you may as well get it right.

Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm, The Elusive Enchantment.

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