Monday, June 8, 2009

The Greatest Thing I've Read All Year

My advice to writers just starting out? Don’t use semicolons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college. — Kurt Vonnegut

I came across this quotation in Armageddon in Retrospect exactly one week after I filed the manuscript for my new book — a book that contains an equally emphatic but nowhere-near-as-clever tirade against semicolons. Deadlines schmedlines. When you come across something like that, you'd be nuts not to submit a new version of the manuscript with a note to the editor, "Sorry, but I just had to include this quote. So I hope you don't mind reprinting all 200 pages ..."

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Words Between the Spaces said...

Great quote, and definitely worth resubmitting your manuscript for. By using "hermaphrodites," though, doesn't that suggest he's gone to college?

June Casagrande said...

Well, college or The Castro.

Adrian Morgan said...

Personally, I like semicolons. They shouldn't be used except when they should (I also like tautologies, you see), but sometimes a comma is just too little and a full stop is just too much.

BTW, there's lots of food left over from my recent birthday party; you'd be welcome to pop around if you're hungry... :-)

June Casagrande said...

Happy birthday!

I paste my blog over on Another user there who read it replied that she really needs to stop using semis --that she needs to break her "bad habit."

I was like, "Eek! Don't stop using semis just because Vonneugut and I don't like them!" I ended up goin on in defense of the semicolon. I'm not sure she heard that second part, though.

I started reading "The Truth" yesterday. I gotta say, I don't think it's for me. His storytelling style is troubling to me. He leaves many things un-fleshed-out and unexplained. Like he says that one character (the tavern owner) goes out to help William hang up fliers, but he never said that William was hanging up fliers in the first place or whether the fliers the crowd is reading in the street are advertisements for William or for the dwarf printers, and in the middle of that there's a "he" that, for the life of me, I can't figure out the antecedent of. Just a lot of stuff like that.

Of course, I was reading this yesterday, just as seven or eight straight days of Southern California overcast was really messing with my head. (I think I have a touch of that brain-chemistry-that-needs-sunlight thing.) So it may have just been my mood. But that's my report so far.

I hope that doesn't mean I can't have some leftover cake!

Debbie Diesen said...

You and Kurt Vonnegut have a good point; but without semicolons, I'd lose the will to write.

Adrian Morgan said...

One important point about semicolons (and commas too, for that matter) is that you can't use them effectively just by following a bunch of rules from a book. To punctuate properly you also have to hear the sentence in your mind and understand what sort of pause you are trying to convey. The semicolon I used after "party" is an example; had I used a full stop, the preceding clause would more likely be read with a falling intonation. Likewise for the semicolon after "example". These semicolons also stand for implicit conjunctions that are conveyed through the pause rather than being expressed explicitely.

As for The Truth, I don't know what you're talking about. I can't find a reference to the pub owner helping William to hang up fliers.

It's definitely not his best book, though, and there are bits that don't make much sense. For example, later on there's a passing reference to a character "helping the Watch with their inquiries", which is odd, because said character is unconscious at the time.

June Casagrande said...

The speech in which Vonnegut said this is all very tongue in cheek. I suspect he had better advice for writers than that, but was just trying to entertain a crowd.

Gotta love him ...

June Casagrande said...


If more writers took that attitude toward semicolons, I probably never would have developed my prejudice. They can, as you showed, be used to benefit the reader. Unfortunately, that's not the motive of most of the semicolon users I edit!

Re "Truth." Maybe I wasn't recalling the scenario exactly right, but I was talking the scene in which Mr. Cheese is introduced.

A fun thing about the passage is that John Cleese's father was born with the name Cheese. He swapped out the H for an L -- just for dignity's sake. (You probably knew that, but it was fun wondering whether that's where Pratchett got his inspiration.)

Adrian Morgan said...

I think we've reached an agreement about semicolons. Punctuation is a tool to give writing some of the same expressiveness as speech.

As for your reading matter, evidence supports the "too much overcast" theory. There's nothing about Mr Cheese helping William to hang up posters. It's Goodmountain, the dwarf, who hangs up the posters. To quote: "Goodmountain followed William out and nailed up the corrected version." The poster in question is the one from the previous scene, where it is actually displayed on the page in all its multi-font glory and William corrects the spelling of "hitherto".

(Incidentally, does it actually say "fliers" in your edition? If so, that would be a change made for the American edition, because the British edition says "posters".)

You might enjoy browsing the Annotated Pratchett File, which lists things like literary and historical references found in the books.

Joel said...

I'm with Debbie. I'll hand over the semicolon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. Or, um, something like that. Next thing you and Kurt'll be telling me to stop overusing the dash--as if--or . . . ellipses or whatever. ;-p

And, of course, let's not forget the semicolon's essential part in the construction of the winky smiley. Which, yeah, I'm sure is another thing folks wouldn't mind disarming me of. He says, fragrantly ending his sentence a preposition with.

June Casagrande said...

No, "fliers" was my word, which is one of the many things that got messed up in my memory. Still, I found that passage to be just one example of situations in which things were retroactively explained or not explained at all. (As I said, I was all funkified over the overcast that day -- and for days prior -- so it could have been my perspective!)

June Casagrande said...

Joel: Love the pry-it-from-my-cold-dead hands reference.

; )


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