Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Semicolon: A Sideways Wink Indeed

It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train.

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

This excerpt is from a story that appeared in the Feb. 18 New York Times.

The article went on to praise Neches’s punctuation prowess and even included a high-five from punctuation pontiff Lynne Truss. Coincidentally, it came out just days after my column on semicolons and why, usually, they stink. My reasoning: Often, the semicolon is not used as a tool to aid the reader. It’s used as a tool to aid the writer – aid him in showing off that he knows how to use a semicolon.

When I read this NY Times piece, I was torn. Was this self-serving punctuation? Or was this a free English lesson slipped in with a public service message? A benevolent demonstration of proper punctuation? I wasn’t sure.

Then I read the article a second time, paying closer attention to the sentence that contained the semicolon:
“Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.”

What is good news for everyone?

The word “that,” in cases like this, is supposed to have a clear antecedent. It’s supposed to be obvious which word or phrase it’s pinch-hitting for. But in this case, our supposedly erudite writer was more focused on the opportunity to show off his semicolon mastery than he was on meaning.

So, once again, the semicolon proves it's more likely to be abused than simply used.

P.S. A shout-out to Temperance for calling the NYT piece to my attention!

P.P.S. Don't miss the irony of the labeling of an "erudite writer" by an article reporting on a message to subway riders not to leave "their newspaper" behind.


LL Blackwell said...

Goodness gracious! I LOVE the semicolon! Honestly, I think it's not as tricky as people think and a great way to join two independent clauses without that clunky ", and." I try to save "and" for joining multiple subjects or verbs. However, I can understand your frustration, so I will continue to read your blog (which I only just discovered today).

June Casagrande said...

Sorry it took so long to get your post up. I've been dark, and will be for a few days more. I'm usually a lot faster at clicking that "post" button.

- J


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