The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

[Amazon Link]

I picked up this book on a lark off the new book table at Portsmouth Public Library. Why not? It was cute, short, perhaps lighthearted! Might be fun!

It was fun in spots. But even at 183 small pages with medium-size type and ample margins, I think it was way too long for the thesis the author, Cecelia Watson, seems to want to make.

The semicolon is despised by some writers. Some of them you've probably heard of, like Kurt Vonnegut. (Unmentioned by Ms. Watson: Elmore Leonard, who warned against using them in dialogue; presumably they were OK outside quotation marks.) The mark was originally "invented" (to the extent that this punctuation stuff could be said to have been invented) to signal a pause, like a rest in music. A shorter pause than a period, but a longer one that a comma.

But then didacts came up with Rules. And the more semicolons used, the more the rules multiplied and became hopelessly complex.

Worse, legislators started using them in laws. Now, legislators are not really that great at knocking the ambiguity out of words; things arguably get worse when you throw a bunch of punctuation symbols into the mix. The book goes into great detail on a Massachusetts law that, depending on the interpretation of a wayward semicolon, might have prohibited the sale of liquor in hotels between 11pm and 6am. And that issue made it to the Mass Supremes.

OK, fine. Ms. Watson is a little more laissez-faire on Rules than I am. I think that any rule-promulgator should explicitly append Orwell's last one: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

But that implies having at least a nodding familiarity with the rules in the first place.

Anyway, a few problems with Ms. Watson's book:

  • A footnote on page 87 claims the late Antonin Scalia "believed that the U.S. Constitution should be applied with reference to its writers' intentions."

    Ms. Watson elsewhere fuzzes up the difference between original meaning and original intent when doing Constitutional interpretation. It's not clear she appreciates the difference. But all she had to do was to check the relevant Wikipedia entry to find a Scalia quote:

    The theory of originalism treats a constitution like a statute, and gives it the meaning that its words were understood to bear at the time they were promulgated. You will sometimes hear it described as the theory of original intent. You will never hear me refer to original intent, because as I say I am first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don't care about the intent, and I don't care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words. I take the words as they were promulgated to the people of the United States, and what is the fairly understood meaning of those words.

    Not a huge deal, but…

  • [Amazon Link]
    Ms. Watson also disses (pp. 165-171) one of my faves, the late David Foster Wallace, taking him to task for his overly-pro-rule Harper's essay (April 2001, original here, also in Consider the Lobster, Amazon link at right.

    No point in going into details, but I encourage you to read both Wallace and Watson and make your own call.

  • And on pp 179-180, there's this drive-by:

    During the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney ran aggressive campaigns misconstruing President Obama's statements on entrepreneurship, Jon Stewart capped off an indictment of Romney's strategy with…

    Well, never mind what Jon Stewart said; it was the usual bleeped Comedy Central f-bomb, designed to elicit clapter from the audience. (If you're interested: here.) There's no clue about what Obama said about "entrepreneurship". There's not even a reference to Romney's "aggressive campaigns". Cecelia, WTF are you trying to pull here?

    A balanced take from Tim Cavanaugh at Reason is here; it may jog your memory.