The best thing about this book is its author; if you have read Lawrence Lessig before, you will know that his clout in the legal world is substantial and that many persons tend to read his words on matters of justice and privacy.
In this book, he enters the political arena where interpretation meets fidelity, as he delves into the issues involved where the American constitution goes. Lessig quickly dips into the problems that go with trying to interpret a document that is not only hundreds of years old, but also quite inflexible, as most of North America has been bound by it, and still is, in spite of aeons of cycles of modernity having passed.
Lessig draws on legal examples, of early-republic drama where politicians have used the constitution to their own benefit (not uncommonly to thwart opposition), of interpretations that have become legal precendent, and notably, he tells of how the constitution is still being used to, basically, guess what the founding daddies meant.
This book is a strong intellectual claim, quite heavy to read, while being worth it.
How should one go about writing a pop-scientific book that is solely about the semicolon? Is it best to be bone dry and scientific, as with most dictionaries, or bone dry and severely funny, as with Benjamin Dreyer’s “Dreyer’s English”?
Thankfully, Cecelia Watson approaches this nerdy subject with both clerical adroitness and humour, and she constructs all of this chronologically. From the start of her book:
How did the semicolon, once regarded with admiration, come to seem so offensive, so unwieldy, to so many people? Asking this question might seem academic in all the worst ways: what practical value could there be in mulling punctuation, and in particular its history, when we have efficiently slim guidebooks like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and thick reference volumes like The Chicago Manual of Style to set straight our misplaced colons and commas? We have rules for this sort of thing! But rule-based punctuation guides are a relatively recent invention.
Indeed, the beginning of the book is the beginnings—yes, plural—of grammar, and Watson pulls this off by being discreet and funny at the same time:
Courts of law, too, were in a lather over how to deal with punctuation marks: a semicolon in an 1875 legal statute caused all of Boston to fly into a panic when courts opined that the semicolon meant that alcohol couldn’t be served past 11:00 P.M. (Bostonians, ever resourceful, devised some pretty clever ways to get drunk well into the wee hours until the statute was finally revised six years after it went into force.)
That story brings the semicolon (and how people perceive it) to life; Watson’s view on linguistic rules is both sane and open:
I wouldn’t deny that there’s joy in knowing a set of grammar rules; there is always joy in mastery of some branch of knowledge. But there is much more joy in becoming a reader who can understand and explain how it is that a punctuation mark can create meaning in language that goes beyond just delineating the logical structure of a sentence.
Watson’s use of examples, both in terms of style and real-life legal wrangles, are illuminating, informative, scary, and funny. Here’s one magnificent example of legal issues due to a missing semicolon (or, begrudgingly agreed, a rewrite):
A particularly heart-wrenching case that was tried on the cusp of the Great Depression painfully illustrates the problems that can be caused by a missing semicolon. In 1927, two men were convicted of murder in New Jersey.
The jury’s verdict and sentencing recommendation was written as follows: “We find the defendant, Salvatore Merra, guilty of murder in the first degree, and the defendant, Salvatore Rannelli, guilty of murder in the first degree and recommend life imprisonment at hard labor.”
The judge interpreted the life imprisonment recommendation as applicable only to Rannelli, since that recommendation followed only the repetition of “guilty of murder in the first degree” after Rannelli’s name. Using this reasoning, the judge sentenced Salvatore Merra to death for the same crime.
In an eleventh-hour appeal, Merra’s lawyer (and New Jersey senator) Alexander Simpson argued that the jury meant the life imprisonment recommendation to apply to both men—otherwise, the jurors would surely have used a semicolon to separate their verdict on Merra from their verdict on Rannelli, so that the verdict would have read: “We find the defendant, Salvatore Merra, guilty of murder in the first degree; and the defendant, Salvatore Rannelli, guilty of murder in the first degree and recommend life imprisonment at hard labor.”
The prosecution, on the other hand, countered that the jury clearly intended for Merra to die.
Watson goes through punctuation, grammar, and style by examining text and sayings by authors, for example, Irvine Welsh, Raymond Chandler, and Herman Melville.
Speaking of the latter, “Moby-Dick” contains around 210,000 words and 4000 semicolons; one for every 52 words, of which Watson notes that “[t]he semicolons are Moby-Dick’s joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes.”
There’s a particularly wondrous dissing of David Foster Wallace, the author who is—by many white men—considered to be The Golden Child of the 21st century where language is concerned. Watson not only disses his “because”-form-of-logic stance on Standard written English, but also of his oft-failed grammar. It’s fun to see, albeit a tad strange to see her rant go on for as long as it does.
All in all, this is a fun book to read. Watson has chosen to balance stories of grammatical rules and real-life examples of how the semicolon has been used (and abused), framing it all in neat paragraphs that stand out, simply because they’re valuable. If this is a sign of things to come from this author, I will keep eyes peeled.
I’m currently reading Jamie Woodcock’s lovely book “Marx at the Arcade“, from where the following quote is taken. It displays how Boris Johnson flip-flopped completely from naming videogames as something awful to regaling in the monies the industry provides for the rich.
Videogames […] make up the majority (51.3 percent) of entertainment spending in the UK. This potential—and it is worth stressing that often these statistics are exaggerated— has captured the imagination of many actors, from investors to governments. For example, the British politician Boris Johnson used to write scathingly critical takes on videogames.
A prominent member of the right-wing Conservative Party in the UK, he is famous for his carefully curated image as a bumbling aristocrat. In an article for the right-wing British newspaper the Telegraph, Johnson once wrote the following about children who play video games:
They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. These machines teach them nothing. They stimulate no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory—though some of them may cunningly pretend to be educational. . . . So I say now: stop just lying there in your post-Christmas state of crapulous indifference.
Get up off the sofa. Can the DVD of Desperate Housewives, and go to where your children are sitting in auto-lobotomy in front of the console. Summon up all your strength, all your courage. Steel yourself for the screams and yank out that plug. And if they still kick up a fuss, then get out the sledgehammer and strike a blow for literacy.
What is interesting about these arguments is not their substance (of course!), but the deep cynicism and paternalism they entail. Johnson claimed that games were to blame for low literacy rates, but rather than jumping on a games-cause-violence bandwagon, he advocated physical violence in response.
However, jumping forward over a decade, Johnson (now the mayor of London) had changed his tune.
In 2016, he gave a speech to encourage the games industry in London, along with providing it a round of funding:
We’re home to fantastic software studios, like State of Play and Sports Interactive, who make world-leading games, like Lumino City and Football Manager. From NASA to the NHS, games software now influences the way we manage our health, educate our children, and even how we explore space, but international competition remains fierce and we need to ensure our city can compete with our global gaming rivals. Games London will be a three-year program that will help the game sector shout louder and attract more investment.
Rather than wanting to smash up videogames, Johnson instead now sees a whole range of benefits. Similarly, in a recent report on the games industry in the UK, George Osborne (then the chancellor of the exchequer and also a member of the Conservative Party) decried that the games industry was “one of the UK’s great strengths” and that today is a “golden age” for the creative sector, which also included films, high-end TV, and animation programming.
This shift in tone, and indeed investments, signals an important change. If we think back to the roots of the industry, videogames have clearly come a long way. No longer an expert’s pursuit, but now something that the political representatives for the UK’s ruling class see as integral to capitalism.
From Cecelia Watson’s fine book “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark“, the following quote is not only a piercing diss of DFW’s “logic” on why one “must use” Standard written English, but a pointer to why one must read the book from where this is quoted:
The finest deployment of semicolons I’ve ever come across, in fact, is in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote longhand in the margins of a newspaper while imprisoned in Alabama for civil disobedience. The letter defends King’s agitation for civil rights against fellow clergymen who felt he should show more patience. The passage from the letter that contains the remarkable semicolons is a long one, and I suggest reading it out loud to really feel their effects.
This is the piece by Martin Luther King:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Cecelia Watson, continued:
I’m hardly the first person to home in on the conventionality of King’s register. It gets a mention in a speech that the novelist, essayist, and English teacher David Foster Wallace liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be, unlike King’s, “nonstandard.” Wallace gave this speech one-on-one to students he believed would benefit from it. It’s long, but here’s a taster…
David Foster Wallace:
I don’t know whether anybody’s told you this or not, but when you’re in a college English class you’re basically studying a foreign dialect. This dialect is called Standard Written English. . . . In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE.
This is just How It Is. You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it’s racist and unfair and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something—if you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our nation uses to talk to itself.
African-Americans who’ve become successful and important in US culture know this; that’s why King’s and X’s and Jackson’s speeches are in SWE . . . and why black judges and politicians and journalists and doctors and teachers communicate professionally in SWE. . . . And [STUDENT’S NAME], you’re going to learn to use it too, because I am going to make you.
Cecelia Watson, continued:
This speech, Wallace claims, is in the service of being honest and realistic about the way that language is wrapped up in politics and power. Students should be pressed into choosing to learn what Wallace calls SWE—Standard Written English, or Standard White English, as he acknowledges it might as well be called. The reason students should be required to learn SWE is that they will be at an extreme disadvantage in the world if they do not do so. This is how the world is whether you like it or not, Wallace says, ostensibly congratulating himself on his brave truth telling.
Apparently a few students who were subjected to this speech were offended by it, and one lodged an official complaint with the university. I have some complaints about it, too. Did Wallace pull all his white students into his office for an in-camera chat about how it is that they might be upholding elitist power structures by speaking and writing SWE? Did Wallace call out his colleagues in the academy for failing to find ways to make room for ideas expressed by people who might not know—or might simply choose not to use—the secret-handshake grammar of the powerful? Did he make participation in SWE a choice as fraught with moral and political implications as he made nonparticipation in that dialect? No, the onus is on the black student to choose, not on Wallace or anyone else to use his power and privilege to help remake the world.
Later in the essay, he tells the reader that what must have been offensive to the student who complained about his speech was only that he, a privileged white male, was the one making it. Because of his identity, he says, the student just wasn’t able to see the “logic” of his speech. Nice try, DFW, but what logic? So—your argument is “We must use one form of speech, Standard Written English, because that’s the form of speech we always use.” I’m not persuaded that “we are doing this already” is sufficient to justify a claim that “we ought to continue to do this” or “we must continue to do this.” Logic is about uncovering and examining assumptions, not perpetuating them. Maybe there is an intelligent, logical argument to be made for choosing SWE as a shared scholarly and professional dialect—but Wallace didn’t bother making it.
What is most infuriating about reading Wallace—more infuriating even than his factual errors and logical hiccups, of which there are many in the “American Usage” essay*—is that it seems he was equipped to understand, for instance, that language is part of our self-presentation, crucial to our construction and conception of ourselves. He understood better than most people that language, and the choices we make surrounding it, is political, always. Yet in his “pep-talk” to black students, he didn’t see it as his job to create a world that would be more open to more possible selves than ones like his own. It’s a good thing to make students (and even people who’ve left their student days far behind) aware that there are context-specific costs and benefits in the choice of one English dialect over another. The problem is that Wallace exempts himself (and everyone who already speaks and writes like he does) from responsibility for his own choice, by pretending it isn’t a choice at all.
It’s an attitude in keeping with Wallace’s self-proclaimed snobbery. He was profoundly a snob—or as he called it, a SNOOT, an acronym Wallace’s family used for “somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.” A dysphemism is a derogatory term—like snoot, for instance—and you shouldn’t feel bad if you didn’t know that, nor should you feel exceptionally clever if you did and you got the joke. Each of Wallace’s sentences is a stunt of some kind, every clause an Odyssean convolution. For him, being a SNOOT was something to brag about, and it’s crucial to his literary style. When I look back on my own snob days, I feel it’s something to be embarrassed about. Where Wallace sees moral high ground lush with the fruits of knowledge, I see a desolate valley, in which the pleasures of speaking “properly” and following rules have choked out the very basic ethical principle of giving a shit about what other people have to say.
Wallace cared a lot about language and punctuation, and I have no problem with that. I love that at his book readings, he read his punctuation aloud along with the words, because he put those punctuation marks in his writing for a reason. His enthusiasm for punctuation and for language more broadly is not the problem, and I don’t doubt that he took his role as a teacher of young people seriously. What is problematic to me is the direction in which he chose to channel those interests and concerns: he narrowed the conversation about the politics of language rather than expanding it, by making it one-sided and doing what everyone always does—obligating people who aren’t participating in the status quo to step it up rather than asking the people enforcing the status quo to think about, and justify, their own standards and values.
So what happens now, if you’re ready to entertain the notion that having plum-picking contests and SNOOTing around isn’t the most admirable way to behave? What’s left, if we aren’t supposed to show our respect and love for language by respecting and loving rules?
It’ll be clear to you by now that I disagree with the rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types, and the semicolon hatred of Professor Paul Robinson, the guy who feels “morally compromised” when his pinkie finger plunks the semicolon key. The history of punctuation shows that rules can’t be taken for granted as necessary elements of language. For a start, when we consider rules, we have to ask: whose rules? Exactly which collection of rules are we supposed to rely upon and remember, when the fortunes of rule systems have depended on their contradicting one another? For over two centuries, grammar books have preached the gospel of rules, and now, when I talk to friends, students, and colleagues about grammar, they lower their voices confidentially to confess sins: I just don’t ever use the semicolon, because I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong. I sometimes want to use two colons in one sentence, but I’m not allowed. I am very confused about the Oxford comma. Occasionally I’ve been pulled aside after a talk on the semicolon to be told a story about a dogmatic elementary school English teacher still perched on the now-adult student’s shoulder, looking down, judging, even after decades. At times I’ve felt less like a punctuation theorist than like a punctuation therapist.
For a taste of some of the problems with Wallace’s essay, see the Language Hat blog’s entry “David Foster Wallace Demolished,” http://languagehat.com/david-foster-wallace-demolished/, accessed August 5, 2018. In addition to the mostly sentence-level problems that Language Hat highlights, there are glaring argument-level flaws. Those flaws would require a longish essay to elucidate properly, and this book is not the place. The essay is useful here as an example of a very common and very misguided expectation that users of “standard” English are exempt from justifying that choice.