Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Semicolon in Modern Thought

Now there's an enticing topic--the semicolon in modern thought.

There are two kinds of writers; one kind thinks there are two kinds of everything in the world; the other kind doesn't.

Actually, what I meant to say was that one kind likes semicolons and the other doesn't.

For example, poet Richard Hugo, In The Triggering Town, calls the semicolon "ugly." He refused to use it in his poetry. Maybe he used it in his technical writing at Boeing, but I doubt it. Whenever we get to that part of the book in class, at least one student says, "But I love the semicolon," and I always agree with the student. The semicolon possesses its own awkward beauty, as far as punctuation-marks goes; in fact, the semicolon refuses to punctuate; it semi-punctuate; it ends something but not really.

But there are so many problems with the semicolon. By U.S. rules, you are not supposed to use it unless there is an independent clause on both sides of it; moreover, the very fact that one has to start talking about clauses puts people to sleep--as does further discussion of coordinating conjunctions versus sentence-adverbs. One may also use the semicolon to separate items in a series that are so large they include commas. In England, as far as I know, the rules for using the semicolon are different, just as there is no "comma splice" in German. After all, these are printers' marks, these periods, commas, dashes, and semicolons--based on venerable handwriting marks. It's not like they existed in the deep grammar of our brains.

Of course, the main problem is that a semicolon is a period on top of a comma. The semiotics of this situation suggest indecision or error.

Anyway . . .: a poem concerning the semicolon:

The Semicolon in Modern Thought

Scholars disagree; they are disagreeable.
According to Jeb Nolocimis, Distinguished
Three-Legged Chair in Social Podiatry at
Bandsaw University, a hallucinating German
printer presided over the marriage of Period
and Comma in his shop, located in
Mainz-am-Rhein, circa 1498. However,
Dr. Lola Doirep of the Toots Institute
rejects Nolocimis's account as "surreal
historicism." She argues periodically
that the semicolon should be interpreted
semiotically first as inhabiting a liminal
zone vexed by indecision (stop or continue?)
and second as the right and left eyes
of an iconic emoticon, which more deeply
represents "winking post-modernity"
and "the rise of Cyber-cute." Meanwhile,
Argentinian-American poet Rexi Vivaldo,
in his long poem, "Stubby's Quest,"
alludes to the semicolon as "a sad
period's single tear, frozen in time
and space--a lament
for the mortality of clauses . . . ;"

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
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