Monday, March 24, 2014

Semi-colons and bullet points

I recently came across a short and delightful article [1], an introduction on punctuation in English writing and six short pieces, one each on the comma, the semi-colon, the exclamation mark, the ellipsis, the dash & the ampersand.
At the end of the article, the reader is asked “Which punctuation gets your vote?” As I had time on my hand, I went to the web site as directed and voted for … drum rolls, please … the semi-colon.
Why I voted the way I did, I am compelled to explain even if my readers do not care. But before that a few things I learned about the various items explored in the piece. First, the ampersand. I was stunned to read, “The ‘ampersand’ arises etymologically from … ‘and (&) per se and”. Its visual form comes from a putting-together of the letters E and T, which together spell et (italics in the original), the Latin for ‘and’.” Of course, the combination of E and T does not stand out as is printed in this font but look at the image below and the etymology stares you in your face!

But this fact alone was not sufficient for this symbol to garner my vote. First off, I was wondering why ampersand in an article on punctuation mark. I never got to the second step.
Apparently the “dash”, of width n or m, “fills the silent space where a sound would otherwise be.” This is too literary for me, particularly because Emily Dickinson is quoted, lines I cannot make head or tail out of –
“Behind Me – Dips eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term Between –“
The writer says, “Decode her dashes, and you find they speak the inexpressible.” Do they? Really? I am unable to figure these dashes. So I said, adios to the dash.
Then, I come to the ellipsis. Ellipsis is a favorite of mine. I just like its look, long yet so crisp, in the middle of a text. I am able to take a deep breath, even longer than what a full stop affords. Yet …
Those three dots convey to the reader that I have further to say and I am collecting my thoughts. “They add nuance to the bald landscape of syntax,” the writer says and I perhaps nod imperceptibly. She adds, “With just three jabs of a digit you can elegantly express polite disagreement, thoughtfulness or expectation …” See that ellipsis at the end of the quote? That was introduced by me to mean etc. But this was not stressed enough by the writer and I hesitate to vote for this mark.
I now shift to the exclamation mark. I find its use is extremely ambivalent, is it expressing surprise or joy. Or, as the writer says, “[M]ark such weighty matters of terror and villainy, like when the Bible says, ‘How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!’” Anything that is so far beyond possible definition cannot deserve my approbation. No go, exclamation! That is one of derision.
Comma is a fine punctuation mark. It lets you take a short gulp of air as you read, “pause and breathe.” I use it judiciously because and only because I read aloud, even within myself. As I read whole sentences (unless of course they are Ayn Randian sentences that go on interminably), I do not need the visual symbol. I vocalize internally when I read. But, I do not like commas that look to me to have been put there on account of rule book compulsions. The rules explicitly exclude the mode of reading I prefer, internally vocalized. No punctuation mark that is a slave to the rule book can get my nod. Defenestrate the comma.
Now, only one mark is left – the semi-colon. The writer says that the semi-colon is like the unobstructed view one is supposed to get through the rear window in a car. This got me to memories of how I had to send by luggage parcel at great expense two cartons that could not be fitted in the car a friend had loaned me but insisted that I follow all the rules, including the one about not blocking the view through the rear window (as I write I am reminded of the Hitchcock thriller “Rear Window”, about what all one can see through it!). You would see cars receding, approaching, keeping a safe distance or changing lanes.
The semi-colon is like the rear window. I have read that it signifies an upcoming list, just as a colon does, but with a difference. A colon separates the category from the list that supports it, no disputes, no disagreements. A semi-colon, on the other hand, allows the items to vary from the theme, even open them up for questioning.
I have my own take on semi-colon. It enables a continuous paragraph to be formed of discrete items, which function, in the fashion of the day and quite inelegantly, bullet points serve. The writer helps the reader understand this with a nice example as she writes, “In compiling the sentence, efficacy – or, more precisely, precision [italics in the original] – is important; capacity is important; and clarity is important.” Just translate the above sentence in your mind to bullet points and the ugliness hits you.
This avoidance of ugliness, enabled so much by the humble semi-colon is why I am enamored of it. My vote goes to it. To look at it another way, that is my way of saying Nyet to bullet points.
Raghuram Ekambaram
1.    What is the best punctuation mark? THE BIG QUESTION, Intelligent Life, The Economist, Spring 2014

No comments: