Thursday, August 21, 2008


Who knew that punctuation marks could so easily be thrown into gender roles? I sure didn’t, but this article from the Boston Globe—via Salon’s Broadsheet—makes the argument that this has been an ongoing debate. What about the semicolon would throw people into such fits? Too much time on their hands, I suppose, but it got me thinking about how I use punctuation and why. I’m a heavy semicolon user; it helps to smoothly extend thoughts never having to resort to abrupt sentence breaks. According to the article, this puts me out of step with male writers on the whole. Apparently, in regards to the mark, I’m supposed to say something like, “I’d sooner have my still-beating heart eaten in front of me by a rabid badger than be caught using such insidious punctuation.” No, I’d rather use the semicolon.

Punctuation is a weird animal anyway; usage constantly morphs with our fickle tastes. Is there no place in this country, then, for this handy piece of punctuation? According to the Boston Globe, semicolon usage is a mere quarter (17.7 semicolons per thousand words) of what it was a century ago (68.1/1000). In this time, major American writers have demonized the mark; many editors will not allow it at all. Once upon a time, Hemmingway was it for me when it came to literary influence. His almost exclusive use of the period and comma—with an occasional em-dash—was a great lesson in brevity for me. Eventually, however, trying to write in this manner became intolerably boring.

“Joe went fishing. He drank wine from the bottle. After, he went to a bullfight. Joe died that night, alone.”

What a bunch of boring crap, even if three of those topics are interesting to write about (I’m not much of a fisherman). To me, an utter lack of literary flourish is neither male nor female; it reads like a textbook. It’s just that, however, that the article seems to hang on. It’s silly to partition punctuation into male and female, just because popular American writers—males, all—have eschewed the mark. Hemmingway wouldn’t be caught dead in a trench with a semicolon? Have another round, Ernie, you’re not drunk enough.

I’m an equal opportunity punctuator; I like them all. Semicolons, as commented in the writer quotes on Broadsheet, acts as a kind of musical slur, allowing you to move smoothly to the next note without a full rest. Em-dashes are great for phrases not quite parenthetical—at least in my mind—or even the abrupt ending of a piece of dialog. Ellipses, possibly my favorite piece of punctuation, are the mainstays of both the dramatic pause and the trail-off. Hell, Joyce used “yes” as punctuation in the final chapter of Ulysses, and other words can be effectively used this way to add a strange, bouncy quality to sentences. Are we so single-minded that all we can use to express our thoughts in writing is basic elementary school punctuation? Are we so obsessed with statements of fact that a little bit of aesthetic gets in the way? With the proliferation of short-handed text messaging, does punctuation even matter in the 21st Century?