Tomorrow, March 4, is National Grammar Day, a holiday co-created by the Society for the Preservation of Good Grammar (which has the unfortunate acronym SPOGG) and MSN Encarta to promote, among other things, "clean, correct sentences" and "the rules of English."
In honor of the day--which, let the record show, has its doubters, among them the Chicago Tribune's Nathan Bierma and Language Log's Arnold Zwicky--I'm devoting today's and tomorrow's posts to the lighter side of grammar and punctuation. Today: the semicolon.
First, some background. A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Nunberg at Language Log briefly noted a new New York subway sign asking riders not to leave their newspapers on the trains. Please put it in a trash can; that's a good idea, the sign read. "Who is there but Language Log to record the occasional burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places?" Nunberg asked.
Answer: just about everyone. Five days later, the New York Times devoted many column inches to the story and permitted reporter Sam Roberts to wax poetic:
Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period [Ed: nice!], much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.
(Roberts also noted that David Berkowitz, the notorious serial killer a k a Son of Sam, was dubbed by Jimmy Breslin "the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver.")
Incredibly, in a presidential campaign season when other things are supposedly preoccupying Times readers, Roberts's article was the most e-mailed Times story on Feb. 19. Other media outlets soon picked it up; I read it in the Los Angeles Times. Language Log devoted two follow-up posts to it.
Now, I'm all for the niceties of punctuation, but I have a problem with the subway example--not with the semicolon but with what follows it. What, exactly, is that's referring to in the previous clause? The nouns in the first clause are it and trash can; that doesn't refer to to either of them. We infer that the antecedent is "the act of putting a newspaper into a trash can," but as it's written, the sentence is a grammatical non sequitur.
Q. Pheevr, blogging at A Roguish Chrestomathy, wrote a long, thoughtful, and amusing post about semicolons titled "Rara Avis." He used the Times's search engine to search for semicolons in the past week's worth of articles:
[W]hen I tried it, the first result I got was a short AP item reporting on today's trading in the Chicago commodities markets, which included a couple of sentences like this:
Wheat for May delivery jumped 19 cents to $10.645 a bushel; March corn fell 2.25 cents to $5.2225 a bushel; March oats added 0.25 cent to $3.84 a bushel; May soybeans advanced 13.5 cents to $14.3825 a bushel.
Those are husky, big-shouldered, wheat-stacking semicolons, those are, without any whiff of literary pretension to them.
Meanwhile, Dictionary Evangelist Erin McKean, a lady who appreciates good branding as much as sharp lexicography, has launched the Semicolon Appreciation Society, complete with clever T-shirts (available in sizes from infants' to women's plus sizes).
And if by now you're wondering what all the fuss is about, read Ghost Auteur's clearly written explanation of two situations in which a semicolon can be used. (UPDATE, 9/24/09: That blog is itself a ghost now. Instead, read Grammar Girl's post on semicolons.)
That is all for today; look for a new carnival of grammar tomorrow.