In Defense of Semi-Colons and Other Ornaments

Activity Being Avoided: Life. I’m campaigning for aestivation.
Music In My Head: Cowboy Romance – Natalie Merchant
Tea Being Drunk: cold mint tea with a little lemon
Books Being Read: Margery Kempe – Robert Gluck, Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

I found this: On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

My initial reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is “What an arrogant little…”. Those of you who have read this blog know that I’m in favour of pretty things like semi-colons and em dashes, and I only despise the clutter of serial commas because they encourage reading without thinking. You’ll also know that I believe a competent writer should be able to work within the full pyjama-tuxedo range.

Yes, one should be able to write a simple Vonnegut sentence, sans semi-colon. One should also be able to flutter Virginia Woolf’s heart with cleaved clauses.

A Vonnegut sentence (from Slaughterhouse Five–and please ignore the modifier problem): “Billy sat up in bed. He had no idea what year it was or what planet he was on. Whatever the planet’s name was, it was cold.”

A Woolf sentence (from A Room of One’s Own): “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”

Now, it’s not easy to write au Vonnegut. As with anything else, simple writing requires attention and practise. It’s even more difficult, however, to write a complicated sentence, to learn to use punctuation–no, to wield it as a chef’s knife–to create the lily and gild it.

Why bother? Why not keep it simple?

Humans don’t always like simple. We like art; we like pretty things; we laud the complex and ornate. While we might take a calming breath in the face of Japanese minimalism, the Sistine chapel receives gasps of admiration.

Each person should have the choice of eliciting breaths or gasps.

If we’re going to force “education” down every callow gullet, there should be a broad purpose to it. There is no purpose to analysing Shakespeare; there is great purpose to being a competent writer. If we spent less time analysing literature and more time honing writing styles, communication would become the most important thing in our society. With communication comes learning and understanding. With communication comes coherence.

We can’t all be the same, but we can learn to communicate with each other. We can also make our existence pretty–because there’s nothing wrong with something being embellished.

 

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