Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Syntax Police Are on the Move: Equal Must Be Separate

What does it mean when a right-wing ideologue slings the rebarbative infamous epithets of “girly” and “sissified” at those who use a syntactical structure he’s declared anathema?

It is not easy to write with dispassion of the odious semicolon, but let me try: Except for its function in one copy-editing circumstance, the semicolon is worthless. It is the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented. Sensitive editors should abolish it forthwith. Forthwith!

So begins James Kilpatrick’s attack on the very idea of allowing two equal, independent clauses to be joined within the marriage of a single sentence. (God forbid that three equal, independent clauses be joined in one sentence: this idea is so unthinkable that Kilpatrick doesn’t even mention it.)

The semicolon is a belly-up guppie in a tank of glorious Siamese fighting fish. It's girly. It is not just probably the most useless of all forms of punctuation. It is absolutely, positively the most useless of all such marks ever invented….Why is the semicolon so obnoxious? For one thing, it serves no useful purpose not already abundantly served by the period and the colon. For another, this pathetic hybrid is so shy, so bashful, so gutless, so easily overlooked, that a reader runs right over it. We stumble. We backtrack. What happened to the sentence that was there a minute ago? Now you see the semi, now you don't.

Pathetic, bashful, gutless, easily overlooked… Oh yeah, that’s “girly” for you. I scent an ideological agenda here: equal, for Kilpatrick, must, it seems, be separate and held apart, such that two ideas lacking a proper hierarchical relationship are never allowed to be part of the same thought. He is willing, after all, to allow two unequal clauses to exist within the same sentence. A sentence made of two unequal clauses will not be “run right over” or overlooked; a sentence made of two unequal clauses will, rather, be “a glorious Siamese fighting fish,” manly, a veritable warrior of a sentence.

Okay, so I understand that Kilpatrick is a reactionary right-wing ideologue: naturally he hates even the faintest whiff of egalitarian practices and attitudes. But why is he so worried about everyone else’s manhood? Presumably he’s not just worried about the manhood of the men he’s addressing in his column, but of the women, as well. (If that weren’t the case, then he’d be directing his remarks to a minority population, speaking for and to a Special Interest Group, viz., literate males, and of course James Kilpatrick would never do that.)

See, I’m one of those “creative writers” he mentions in his column who embrace the semicolon with both arms. Is he calling me “girly” and “sissified”? Since I was a girl for the first couple of decades of life, being called “girly” is, I suppose, meant to infantilize me. And yes, babies are bashful, shy, and gutless. Maybe even pathetic. But “sissified”? Last time I heard, that was one of those homophobic epithets meant to terrorize boys and men into becoming mean bastards and support the party line. (Siamese fighting fish?)

Do I want my sentences to be Siamese fighting fish? Sometimes. But why must every sentence I produce constitute a vector for aggression? Is discourse merely a tank of Siamese fighting fish?

I don’t get it. But I suppose that's because when I was a girl, of all the fish in my parent's aquarium, I preferred the guppies. It bothered me, of course, that they ate their young, but their grace and beauty fascinated me. I haven't laid eyes on a guppy in years. Maybe they'd strike me as bland now. Or even pathetic and gutless. But even so, it would never occur to me to put them in the same tank with Siamese fighting fish.

I guess that's because I'm just a girl.


Josh said...

Waitaminnit -the old segregationist and language curmudgeon (and "60 Minutes" personality) Jack Kilpatrick is still alive? And he's harshing on Johns Irving and Barth's favorite punctuation mark? I'm so tempted to add a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb to every right-wing quote I come across now: "Go; furthermore, fuck yourself," for example.

Sue Lange said...

I love the semicolon. It took me a while to figure out how to use it. I had to reread that section in Strunk and White numerous times before I got it.

I read somewhere that using the semicolon is pompous because no one understands it. I think Kurt Vonnegut, much to my disappointment, said that.

Vonnegut understands a lot of things, but he's wrong about the semicolon. Some people do understand it. Writers that are efficient. Writers that figured out a book on style and put it into practice. Writers that understand how to make a point strong by the use of such a tool. Writers that are subtle.

Of course if semicolon use escapes someone, there's nothing wrong with continuing to use unsubtle methods of communications, such as the grunting and scratching. I don't feel they should restrict the rest of us, though. Certainly not those of us who learned how to walk on two legs a while ago.