Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Notes of a Nobody: Blown away by punctuations !!

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 2, 2012

Accurate punctuation is the nemesis of even the best and the brightest. To write and write with the precise impact of punctuation is an envious talent to have. In one way, my growth as a moderately observant reader can be attributed to the careful attention paid to the effective usage of punctuations that I have come across in paragraph length sentences maintained in splendid balance and equilibrium by their ingenious use. Like any other normal child, I had gone through the usual motions of learning punctuations in school and developed a passable comfort in using them. However, the first real encounter with the need for deeper understanding of punctuation and the difference it can make to a reading experience happened when I was asked to punctuate one of Oscar Wilde’s inimitable quotes:

Children begin by loving their parents after a time they judge them rarely if ever do they forgive them

I simply did not get it and I failed miserably. Since then, I have been respectfully wary of these squigglies for the silent power and control they carry with them. In recent times, my attention to punctuations was once again drawn by two interesting articles – one titled Semicolons: A Love Story by Ben Donlick in NY Times and Semicolons; So tricky by Mary Noris in The New Yorker. Actually the latter had a reference to the former. Ben’s article is brilliant for it traces his personal journey from disrespect to respect with respect to the usage of semicolons. The disrespect has its origins in the wholesale adoption of the advice given to him by his one-time literary role-model Kurt Vonnegut:

Do not use semicolons; they are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college

This wholesale adoption, Ben admits led him to discard usage of semicolons lock-stock and barrel till he started to read the works of William James and experiencing there the brilliant usage of them. Ben builds a nice case as to how our minds think and work in concatenations and gets all over the place in a short span of time and it is in the ability of representing this motion of mind that semicolons come quite handy

……………..It’s in honoring this movement of mind, this tendency of thoughts to proliferate like yeast, that I find semicolons so useful. Their textbook function — to separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences” — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle

Once set in motion, Ben’s pendulum of admiration for the utility and role of semicolons does not stop till it swings to the other extreme and one gets an impression that it is stuck there for good when he says…..

……And so, far from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body

and thus after establishing the semi-colon to its respectful place in his mind he returns to his now dead literary hero with a counter-advice:

So yes, Kurt Vonnegut: simplicity, in grammar as in all things, is a virtue, not to be sneezed at. But I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly

For Ben now, there is realization, regret, restoration and rectification demonstrating that experience, growth and wisdom look beautiful, weighty and have a relevance and gravity of their own

When I read a good article, I also make it a point to read the reactions to it and have always found brilliant nuggets of insight and reference. Here is one reference by a reader on the same subject which I thought was interesting:

The science writer, Lewis Thomas, wrote, “It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer- From Notes on Punctuation in “The Medusa and the Snail”

Oh! by the way, coming back to punctuating Oscar Wilde’s sentence this is how its correct form looks:

Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them

…  I notice there are two semicolons……

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