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22 Februar 2008 @ 23:43
Rara avis  

Has it come to this, then? Is the semicolon now officially so obscure—is its proper deployment considered such arcane thaumaturgy—that when it is spotted in the subways of New York, it is no less to be remarked upon than the appearance of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas?

Left: semicolon; right: ivory-billed woodpecker (♀)

How it all began

Neil Neches, a marketing manager who writes copy for New York City Transit, created an ad that exhorts subway passengers to dispose of their newspapers properly, rather than leaving them strewn willy-nilly about the trains. The ad includes the following sentence:

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

This strikes me as a fine sentence, but not in any way an extraordinary one. Geoff Nunberg gave it what seemed to me to be about the right amount of mass-media attention: a three-sentence post on Language Log, remarking that amidst the grumbling of grouchy grammarians and pistol-packing pandas one seldom hears any praise for well-punctuated public signage, and that perhaps the written language is not going to hell in a handbasket quite so rapidly as the peevologists fear.

"A pretentious anachronism"

Then the New York Times picked up on the story, and devoted an article to it, with a photo of Neches and his handiwork, and quotations from miscellaneous experts. (The article was brought to my attention when Mark Liberman mentioned it on Language Log.) The subway ad is remarkable, the Times informs us, because "in literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism." Fortunately, the Times' own online search engine allows one to test this claim, at least with respect to journalism; one can, for example, search for semicolons in the past week's worth of articles. To be fair, I think the search returns quite a few false positives; on the other hand, when I tried it, the first result I got was a short AP item reporting on today's trading in the Chicago commodities markets, which included a couple of sentences like this:

Wheat for May delivery jumped 19 cents to $10.645 a bushel; March corn fell 2.25 cents to $5.2225 a bushel; March oats added 0.25 cent to $3.84 a bushel; May soybeans advanced 13.5 cents to $14.3825 a bushel.

Those are husky, big-shouldered, wheat-stacking semicolons, those are, without any whiff of literary pretension to them.

Still, there seems to be something about the semicolon in particular that strikes people as, if not pretentious, then perhaps just very markedly correct. Unlike some other punctuation marks, the semicolon does not tend to be overused. People who don't know how to use apostrophes scatter them all over the place like so many discarded newspapers; people who don't know how to use semicolons perpetrate comma splices instead. The result, I suppose, is that the semicolon has become the emblem of an inadvertently secret society of competent punctuators. If Neches had chosen any of the other three acceptable ways of separating those two independent clauses in his ad (a full stop, an em dash, or a colon), I doubt it would have provoked any comment whatsoever. (Well, maybe the colon would have.) It saddens me to think of the semicolon as ostentatiously correct, or ostentatiously anything; one thing I've always liked about the semicolon is that it is such an unobtrusive way of getting from one clause to another.

A cryptic comment from the sage of Building 20 the Stata Center

The experts of whom the Times made inquiries are a motley group, most of whom simply went along with the premise of the article and agreed that the semicolon in the subway ad was well placed. In Language Log's third post about the matter, Arnold Zwicky comments on the exception to this pattern. The Times reported:

The linguist Noam Chomsky sniffed, "I suppose Bush would claim it's the effect of No Child Left Behind."

Zwicky wonders:

What on earth did Sam Roberts (the writer of the story) ask Chomsky to elicit such a response?

The comment seems totally off-topic, given that neither President Bush nor the NCLB Act were in the context. What was Chomsky trying to say?

What I wonder is why on earth Roberts asked Chomsky to comment on the semicolon at all. Chomsky is a theoretical syntactician by profession and a castigator of U.S. government policy by avocation; his justly famous work does not to my knowledge touch on matters of punctuation, nor is he generally numbered among the great prose stylists. To my mind, it was Roberts who committed an irrelevancy in trying to bring Chomsky into the discussion of the semicolon; Chomsky, displaying his characteristic willingness to answer dumb questions, did his best to relate the topic to one of his areas of expertise.

When in doubt, blame teh intarwebs

Speaking of irrelevant things (how's that for a segue?), let's not overlook the following non sequitur, which Roberts manages to sneak in just after the sound bite from Chomsky:

New York City Transit's unintended agenda notwithstanding, e-mail messages and text-messaging may jeopardize the last vestiges of semicolons.

Oh noes! Technology will (mis)spell our doom! Seriously, though, this bit of alarmist nonsense comes out of nowhere, and it also goes nowhere; Roberts uses it mostly as a setup for the article's punch line, which is about how the semicolon represents a wink in emoticons. Maybe instead of bothering Chomsky, Roberts could have talked to someone who could have set him straight on the linguistics of instant messaging; I recommend L. M. Squires.

Nuværende humør: nerdypedantic
quantumkitty on 23. Februar, 2008 06:14 (UTC)
Unlike some other punctuation marks, the semicolon does not tend to be overused.

I overuse the semicolon all the time. :) So do many people on my friends list, I think.

I would say that it tends not to be misused.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 23. Februar, 2008 16:33 (UTC)

I guess I was using the word overused imprecisely; what I intended by it was 'used where it shouldn't be' rather than 'used (correctly in individual instances but) excessively in the aggregate.' A better way of putting it might be to say that the semicolon suffers more neglect than abuse.

Michellemsagara on 23. Februar, 2008 08:48 (UTC)
I use it a lot. Although one publisher's house style prefers zero semicolons in dialogue, but will leave them alone in text.

And I love lurking and reading your posts, when you make them.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 23. Februar, 2008 16:44 (UTC)


I think it makes sense to be wary of semicolons in dialogue—most people don't usually talk that way—but I hope your publisher is willing to entertain the possibility of exceptions.

Merle: lambdamerle_ on 23. Februar, 2008 14:51 (UTC)
Eons ago, when they were called smileys instead of emoticons and there were only four or five accepted ones, I standardized on ;-) over :-). The main reason was that one fewer shifted key made for easier and less error-prone typing. Thinking about how I have used it over the years, it does make sense: I only use it to indicate sarcasm or an obviously inappropriate statement.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 23. Februar, 2008 16:47 (UTC)

That does make sense. :-) suggests happiness rather than facetiousness, and the latter is more often in need of flagging.

LaParteralapartera on 24. Februar, 2008 18:46 (UTC)
This post caught my attention. As an inveterate semi-colon user, it never occurred to me that the semi-colon is on its way out. I correct my students' punctuation all the time, including substituting semi-colons for commas (and vice versa, I'm afraid). I guess that makes me a member of your secret society. Well . . . I AM trochee's mom.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 25. Februar, 2008 16:25 (UTC)

I think that makes you not just a member, but a recruiter. And recruitment by procreation displays a particularly impressive level of dedication to the cause.

(Anonym) on 25. Februar, 2008 20:53 (UTC)
May I join in saying that I appreciate your love of the semicolon, and also your prose? I do enjoy reading your posts.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 25. Februar, 2008 20:59 (UTC)


theridger on 25. Februar, 2008 21:00 (UTC)
That anonymous was me... having a bit of trouble with the signing in. Sorry!