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The Word

Sex and the semicolon

The punctuation mark that makes men tremble

By Jan Freeman
August 10, 2008
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IN A RECENT column inviting readers to copy-edit along with him, language maven James Kilpatrick objected to a possessive that appeared in the Washington Post: "Stephens's story."

"I would argue in favor of an unencumbered apostrophe, i.e., Stephens' story," wrote Kilpatrick.

Argument, however, is beside the point; either version is correct.

Kilpatrick, an old newspaperman, likes AP style, which forms possessives of words ending in -s by adding just the apostrophe. The Post, and many other publications, think the apostrophe-s version is more natural and elegant. Last year, the legislators of Arkansas joined this faction, voting to make their state's official possessive Arkansas's.

But Kilpatrick's return to the apostrophe hobbyhorse made me realize how nearly dead that horse is now. Apostrophe mistakes are surely as common as ever, but readers no longer complain about them much. Could this be an unintended effect of Lynne Truss's 2004 bestseller, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"?

Truss's subtitle, after all, promised "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." And though she conceded that was an impossible dream - no golden age of consistent punctuation had ever existed - she did manage to say just about all one could say about apostrophe abuse, whether on the greengrocer's sign (carrot's, eggplant's) or in possessives (it's, her's).

It's not that apostrophes have absolutely dropped off our mental maps. We still had Jeff Deck and his Dartmouth buddies setting out, earlier this year, on a road trip to correct public typos - mostly apostrophe errors, the team reported - across the nation. (I wonder if they hung around Portland long enough to see the Oregonian's story on their mission, which reported that it began in "Summerville, Mass.")

And most of the horror photos submitted to the National Punctuation Day website show incorrect apostrophes or quotation marks; there are no samples of mis-spaced ellipses, misused en dashes, or other such arcana of the punctuation arts.

But in the years since Truss tried to set us straight, the punctuation conversation has shifted its focus from the apostrophe to a more subtle and debatable punctuation mark: the semicolon.

The credit probably belongs to Trevor Butterworth, who in 2005 - citing Truss as partial inspiration - wrote a 2,700-word essay on the semicolon in the Financial Times. Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme's sense that the mark was "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly." His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.

Ben McIntyre, writing in the Times of London a couple of months later, added to the collection of semicolon snubbers: Kurt Vonnegut called the marks "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, "wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don't use semi-colons."

And Kilpatrick, in a 2006 column, restated those sentiments at a higher pitch, calling the semicolon "girly," "odious," and "the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented."

Roy Peter Clark, who blogs about grammar and usage at Poynter Online, was more restrained, but still suspicious. The semicolon, he wrote last month, looks "like an ink smudge on a new white carpet." And he's unnerved by its "arbitrariness, as if the semicolon were a mark of choice rather than rule." (Which it is - there's that nuance and complexity again!)

The haters haven't had the floor to themselves, of course. John Irving, in an appreciation of Vonnegut in the Times of London, declared himself an unrepentant fan of semicolons. Philip Hensher of the Independent defended the semicolon as "a cherished tool, elegant and rational."

And Kathy Schenck, who blogs about editing at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote last month that though journalists may scorn it, she still likes the semicolon. "It's like a slur in music, leading you to the next thought without making you stop to rest."

Nevertheless, the semicolon has been suffering. Paul Collins, in a recent Slate article, cited a study showing "a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7."

You'd think a victory like that would satisfy the anti-semicolon crowd. But no, they keep worrying that those girly, prissy, hermaphroditic punctuation marks will somehow infect their sturdy prose. If semicolons are masculine enough for Melville and Irving, why should they unsettle Barthelme and Vonnegut? Are today's male writers just more insecure than yesterday's about the manliness of their vocation?

Sexist language aside, though, the semicolon debate is a model of the way we should approach most disagreements about usage issues: as matters of taste, not law. The interesting questions, after all, aren't about using its and it's; they're the ones that have, yes, nuance and complexity.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas; visit the Word blog at boston.com/ideas/theword.

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