Thursday, 21 August 2008

Is the semicolon girlie?

Writers and Salon book critics debate the idea that some punctuation marks are more feminine than others.

Aug. 21, 2008 | Recently someone asked me what my favorite punctuation mark was. I did not even hesitate. The semicolon. Duh. To me, the semicolon has a certain elegance, like a vodka martini; I don't whip it out every day, but on occasion, and with great relish. So it was with shock that I read a recent Boston Globe article suggesting that my favorite punctuation mark is ... girlie? An excerpt:

The credit probably belongs to Trevor Butterworth, who in 2005 -- citing Truss as partial inspiration -- wrote a 2,700-word essay on the semicolon in the Financial Times. Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme's sense that the mark was "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly." His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.

Ben McIntyre, writing in the Times of London a couple of months later, added to the collection of semicolon snubbers: Kurt Vonnegut called the marks "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, "wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don't use semi-colons."

And Kilpatrick, in a 2006 column, restated those sentiments at a higher pitch, calling the semicolon "girly," "odious," and "the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented."

Well. I asked our Broadsheet writers -- and our eminent book critics Laura Miller and Louis Bayard -- to chime in with their opinions. -- Sarah Hepola

Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.

Catherine Price: I'd never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.

Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?

Judy Berman: The em dash actually has feminine connotations for me. It could have something to do with Emily Dickinson, or my former boss (a woman), whose em-dash habit I eventually picked up. Either way, semicolons do tend to result in longer sentences, and I think those have long been seen as the "feminine" answer to short, abrupt "masculine" sentences. Generally, though, the attempt to declare any type of punctuation masculine or feminine seems pretty reductive to me.

Kate Harding: Seems to me they're arguing that complex thoughts and nuanced self-expression are chick things, and I'm not touching that one.

Katharine Mieszkowski: Confidential to the Boston Globe: The semicolon is so not "girly." It's obviously transgender. It's neither a colon nor a period, with its own unique significance. Have these people never heard of "America's Next Top Model"?

Laura Miller: I love semicolons. They represent a certain development of thought, however, and a degree of emotional nuance that I would not associate with the writers [in the above block quote], especially with the superficially stoic but actually sentimental Hemingway (and, to a lesser degree, Chandler). To the degree that a writer is crude and relatively simplistic in the representation of psychological states and emotions, I can see why he would eschew the semicolon. None of these guys are especially precise in that department.

Nicholson Baker, on the other hand, wrote a whole essay on the colon-dash and semicolon-dash, two now obsolete forms of punctuation that he thought should be revived.

Louis Bayard: Not only do I use semicolons, but when I see someone else use them (correctly) I elevate that person to a private pantheon. As Laura says, it's a very nuanced thing -- a test of ear and eye -- but delightful when done right. I haven't read it in 20 years, but in "The World According to Garp," I believe Garp warms to another character when she uses a semicolon in her letters.

Lynn Harris: Wait. And the period is manly?

This article first appeared in


Ragdoll said...

Butterworth, Kurt Vonnegut, Kilpatrick are all, simply, wrong. The semi colon is an excellent literary utensil, particularly delightful when used correctly. Stand your ground sir, the semi colon deserves to be revered.

Forsoothsayer said...

this article caused me untold delight. forwarded to friends.

The Queen said...

Ok, enough hiding. where ya been?