Monday, June 18, 2012

Once thought to be extinct, semicolons now being re-integrated into natural text habitats…


After 30-years on the endangered punctuation list, the semicolon is now at the center of the International Written Language Fund's resettlement program. "The semicolon was near extinction in the late 1970s," says IWLF science director Barry Tomlin. "It is, for the most part, a superfluous vestige of ancient writing habits. It certainly would have died out if English textbooks had simply shut up about it." Student ambitions of intellectualism, based on grammar readers, saved it, however.

The IWLF had all but given up on the semicolon. There had been no confirmed sightings in any published genre of writing since 1995. "The semicolon was deep in the red zone," Tomlin says. "We kept it on the list, but nobody thought it was really still in use. We'd written it off and were more concerned about keeping some semblance of order in existing apostrophe populations. You know, keeping them out of plural habitats, managing overpopulation in slogans and ads." Then a 2010 study that integrated the turnitin.com databank into the English text corpus turned all previous assumptions upside down. "You've heard about when they started pulling up an occasional coelacanth from the Indian Ocean a while back and everyone was excited that the fish was still around. All the experts said the fish had been dead for thousands of years. Well, in 2010, it was like suddenly pulling up hundreds, thousands of coelacanth all at once."

It turns out that students, who don't read published genres, were still using the semicolon. "Its presence in those grammar books made students think this is how you're supposed to write for school. So for decades, in unpublished term papers and five-paragraph essays, completely under the IWLF radar, the semicolon had survived. Not only was the semicolon alive and well, it was becoming a pest. "It was displacing the colon, the period and even the exclamation point in some environments," Tomlin reported. He said researchers were most alarmed by the semicolon's previously unknown predatory habits. "It was actually endangering the comma, driving it near extinction. We realized we had to intervene." The plan he and his team came up with was counter intuitive, but promises to both save the comma and improve student writing at the same time. It will also give the semicolon, which turns out to be neither dead nor superfluous, a new role in the global English biosphere.

In a new paper to be published in the July 2012 issue of Journal of Normative Punctuation, Tomlin and his colleagues are recommending that the semicolon be reintroduced into published genre habitats on a limited scale. At the same time, teachers need to more actively discourage the use of the semicolon in school assignments. "We're hoping," Tomlin says, "that the semicolon will lose its pseudo-intellectual aura among the 14 to 21-aged writing crowd and allow the comma, period and colon populations to recover in student writing. The semicolon will feel less fenced in, become less intrusive and return to its traditional niches." There is no guarantee the plan will work. "We know students don't read anything. That is why they used so many semicolons in the first place. So the aura might stick. Using the semicolon in novels, non-fiction and journalism won't necessarily pay off." The plan is more sophisticated, however. "We've got a global team of volunteers lined up to use more semicolons in YouTube comments and American Idol chatrooms." He predicts that within 15 years, the semicolon will only rarely be used to introduce lists, set off subordinate clauses and connect sentence fragments. "In student writing, those habitats will be repopulated by indigenous colon and comma varieties. Meanwhile, out in the real world, a lucky reader might actually spot an occasional semicolon in a magazine or short story; at least that is our hope."

14 comments:

  1. Well, Kurt Vonnegut has passed on, and he proudly boasted that he never used them. Didn't he say that the only thing a semicolon does is show that you've been to college?

    Another reason semicolons appear to be returning (they at least don't smell as bad as a coelacanth, thought to have been extinct for 300 million years, not "thousands"): nearly everything everyone writes these days is done with a computer. Virtually no one writes anything longer than half a page longhand. Is there even a working typewriter in your department, never mind when the last time anyone used it was?

    Word processing software tends to encourage long, complex sentences, not to mention colons, hyphens, M dashes, N dashes, and of course semicolons. When PCs (and especially Macs) were new, a simple memo that a meeting had been canceled looked like an illuminated manuscript. The best way to make it clear that a scientific paper is a major contribution is to make the title simple, short, and easily comprehensible.

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  2. Oh, and FYI, you can all hold out hope: The "new," blazingly more "challenging" core curriculum ensures that withing a brief span, all who grace you class rooms on the collegiate level will be powerfully literate wranglers of argument. How do I know? Well, the 9-10 level ELA rubric requires that students accomplish use of the "semicolon (with perhaps a conjunctive adverb)..." and the colon as well as spell correctly by the end of their sophomore year. The 11-12 requires "observation of hyphenation conventions" and correct spelling. We are to presume that all of the rest of it will be managed across the grammar school years, and we in the secondary halls will be doing mere mop-up where grammar and usage is concerned. That'll leave us all the more time in our calendars to build in 3-week close-reads of federalist Paper number 53, and to figure out just which of Willie the Shakes' plays best connotes the American voice... (BTW, if any of you would like to help me out with that last, I'd be much obliged!)

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    1. I think the play you're looking for The Great Gatsby. Oh, wait...

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    2. Second that Gatsby (or Huck Finn, or a novel by Cooper, or Uncle Tom's Cabin, or a slave narrative, or The Jungle, or The Souls of Black Folk, or Ellison's Invisible Man, or The Death of a Salesman, or anything by Tennessee Williams, or just about any Western in any format) might be more appropriate, but if you need Shakespeare, then I'd vote for The Tempest, preferably including one of the modern adaptations that highlights the colonialist themes of the play. I heard a version set on a southern plantation on the radio recently; I'm not sure, but I think it may have been an adaptation of a version described on Wikipedia: "Another "offbeat variation" (in Brode's words) was produced for NBC in 1998: Jack Bender's The Tempest featured Peter Fonda as Gideon Prosper, a Southern slave-owner forced off his plantation by his brother shortly before the Civil War. A magician who has learned his art from one of his slaves, Prosper uses his magic to protect his teenage daughter and to assist the Union Army.[116]"

      But there are numerous performances and pieces of criticism that highlight the colonialist theme, and I think it's fair to argue that that particular strain of English thinking did carry over into American culture. After all, Elizabeth was making land grants in the Americas; think about how Virginia got its name. In fact, without *too* much stretching, you could probably tie in Pocahontas, whom they've all heard of (and there's some good work on Pocahontas narratives, including Robert Tilton's Pocahontas: the Evolution of an American Narrative)

      But what you describe is definitely a tall order. I think some version of the above is doable with high schoolers, but juggling it with everything else you've mentioned above will be something of a challenge. Also, I'm not sure that critical takes on "the American voice" are exactly what whoever wrote those standards was envisioning.

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    3. Thanks for the contributions, but the request was largely made tongue-in-cheek. That's the only way I've found to keep utter madness at bay against the inanities of this tea-partying movement.

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  3. AS, your post was really well written; it's a fine piece of satire.

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  4. well done! Don't forget their common niche as part of an emoticon, such as a wink. ;)

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  5. I like semi-colons; is that wrong? They connect sentences; they make long lists possible; they offer a brief pause but not a full stop; they prevent run-ons. What's not to like?

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    1. I do, too; in fact, one of the few comments one of my advisors ever offered on my dissertation draft was that I use too many of them. He may have been right; nevertheless, I would have appreciated a few more substantive comments.

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  6. Bravo! I vote Post of the Week (and not only because the competition is pretty thin, though Bubba's mournful haiku above isn't bad).

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  7. POW! Thank you much!

    No worries, F&T and CC. I am not at war with semicolons. I can't say I like them, but my main complaint is their inappropriate use and over-use in student writing. If used sparingly and correctly, I don't have a problem with them.

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